Our economists should have more influential voice

In 1967, having graduated from university with a degree in economics, I earned the right to place BSc Econ after my name. Had I gained the equivalent qualification as an architect here in Kenya I would now call myself Arch. Mike Eldon; if I would have become an accountant I would now boast of being CPA Mike Eldon; and as an engineer I would swagger in the glory of being identified as Eng. Mike Eldon. Not to mention our “learned friends” in the legal profession. Yet as a ‘mere’ economist I must humbly introduce myself as simply Mr. Mike Eldon.

Why is this? The question has fleetingly passed through my mind from time to time. But it was only when I heard from Dr. Julius Muia, the Principal Secretary in the State Department for Planning (at least, having earned a PhD, he is able to place “Dr.” before his name), that one of his goals is to uplift the status of economists in this country that I began to think about the issue more seriously.

I reliably learned that the national government has over 400 economists who functionally report to the Principal Secretary, Planning – but that no fresh ones have been recruited since 2011.

Dr. Muia informed me that the State Department for Planning recently asked the Commission for University Education to establish how many students are studying economics and related programmes in our universities, and he was amazed to be told that it was over 25,000.

So now he wants to create closer links between them and their professors, and the economists in his ministry; and he also is looking into how to form an Economists and Statisticians Association of Kenya, ‘ESAC’. (Yes, another neglected discipline, the statistical one.)

Back to my education in economics. Sure, economists are often mocked, and maybe, just maybe, for good reason. First we are told that they can never agree on how to deal with the issues in their field – hence the line that ‘if you were to lay out all the economists in the world end-to-end you would come to no conclusion’.

And then, right back from when I was a student over half a century ago, it was said that economists could never get even their diagnoses about the economy right, never mind any prescriptions, as they were “always applying yesterday’s theory” – that was by now already out of date and discredited. (Shades of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme?)

Leaving the all-too-easy mockery aside I am so grateful that, lacking enthusiasm for my science A-Level subjects in high school, I went along with my father’s suggestion that I should consider studying economics at university – as he had done in the 1920s at the London School of Economics, travelling from his native Romania to do so.

My years in the mid-sixties at University College London opened up my powers of critical analysis and connected me to the big economic issues of the day, assets that I have carried with me ever since.

Little wonder therefore that I am still in touch with Vicky Chick, one of my lecturers from my time at UCL, and that a few months ago I was happy to respond to an invitation to pay tribute to Prof. Spraos, the then head of the economics department, on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

A belated benefit of my BSc Econ is that in my work with the World Bank in recent years I have been forced to resuscitate my dormant economics grounding, allowing me to speak in the language of industrial-strength experts in the domain.

In conclusion let me applaud Dr. Muia for his determination to raise the profile and status of economists and also statisticians, so that together they can develop a more influential voice in our society as they lay out the options we face, and help us reach rational sustainable solutions.

We are all potential beneficiaries of such a noble initiative, and so I am all for it.

Lessons from the character of John McCain

Like millions of others, I witnessed the uplifting memorial service to honour former war hero, senator and presidential candidate John McCain.

Mr McCain’s daughter Meghan was the first to pay tribute to him. “We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness,” she lamented. “The real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly.”

And later, in the most quoted part of her address: “The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold, she is resourceful and confident and secure, she meets her responsibilities, she speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast, because she does not need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great.”

Former Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman was next to speak. Mr Lieberman was Republican McCain’s first choice as running mate when he stood for president in 2008, but conservative Republicans were uncomfortable with Mr Lieberman’s support for abortion, so he was not selected.

Among those listening to Mr Lieberman’s personal and at times humorous speech about his friend were the Clintons, the Bushes and the Obamas – the three couples sitting next to each other in the front row, alongside three former vice presidents, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden.

Ninety-nine year old Henry Kissinger followed Lieberman, speaking in his heavy German accent about McCain’s important role in reconciling America and Vietnam following the war – despite having been a prisoner in Vietnam for over five years and being tortured repeatedly.

Now it was the turn of George Bush, eloquent and statesmanlike, and then his successor in the White House, Barrack Obama. Mr Obama revealed that McCain had called him earlier in the year to invite him to speak at his memorial service. A sure sign, winked Mr Obama, of the man’s sense of mischief. “What better way to get the last laugh than to get George and me to say nice things about him to a national audience?”

Earlier, Mr Lieberman had referred to the incident during Mr McCain’s presidential campaign when a woman at a town hall meeting spoke offensively about Mr Obama and Mr McCain told her off. Mr Obama now told us he wasn’t surprised that, as Mr Lieberman had put it, by instinct and without needing to consult anyone, this man who so lacked prejudice did the right thing.

Mr Obama also shared that when he was president, from time to time he would meet with Mr McCain to talk about policies and politics. They certainly didn’t agree on everything, but they learned from each other and they laughed together. “For all our differences, and they were deep, we never doubted that we were on the same team.”

He praised Mr McCain for “always striving to be better, to do better” and, like all the others who spoke before him, Mr Obama wished Americans today could indulge in more of the bipartisan and civilised political engagement (“not small and mean and petty”) that Mr McCain so richly personified. He disparaged those who “appeared brave and tough”, but more likely spoke out of fear.

Each speaker condemned the current divisive and abrasive style of US politics, telling positive stories about the man they were honouring, about how he forgave and sought forgiveness, about how honest, fair and civilised he was. They regretted the way the broader American society had regressed, wishing it could follow the example set by Mr McCain.

But would anything that was said make a difference? Would any of America’s leaders, never mind Mr Trump, behave any differently as a result? I was not holding my breath, and I was right not to. Any more than I do after our National Prayer Breakfasts and similar occasions here, where equally uplifting sentiments are expressed by the high and mighty, only for them to revert to the default aggressive, abusive language immediately they leave the venue.

One commentator asked if some of America’s younger senators would take on Mr McCain’s mantle. And by the way, will any of our younger politicians rise above the lowest common denominator of Kenyan politics? Will our recent “Handshake” take root, overcoming the never-ending divisive campaigning? Or will our politicians and voters continue playing our same dysfunctional games?