Professor Cheung’s 山登绝顶我为峰triggers me to write about what make a top economist: someone sitting at the peak of economics. Cheung himself and Keynes shared their opinions on the similar issue and here are my humble ones.
It is important, if not essential, for any economist to adopt a good methodology. Some many brilliant scholars having spent years in a research area that ends up generating limited use and influence. Refutable hypothesis, observable variables, real world constraints, evidence based analysis and transaction cost in an ordinal sense are all very good approaches being preached by Ronald Coase and Professor Cheung;
2. Professional ability
Being able to work with abstract concepts and ideas is definitely crucial in order to succeed in the study of economics. Many existing economists are very strong in mathematics and statistics without the mastery of Price Theory, which includes law of demand, law of variable proportions, the concept of rent, capital, interest as well as profit, and thus achieve very little in interpreting economic phenomena and behaviors. After reading the work of Milton Friedman and Armen Alchian, one just cannot deny that they are the masters of Price Theory. The empirical part, which is to confirm a hypothesis by data and facts, is also important. Friedman, again, is equally good at it: A Theory of the Consumption Function illustrates how a theory can be supported by evidence in a scientific way.
3. Logic and deductive reasoning
Individuals like David Ricardo (comparative advantage), Irving Fisher (capital and interest), Paul Samuelson (trade theory) and Kenneth Arrow (impossibility theorem) are so strong in logic that they can simply deduce ‘pure’ theories without worrying much about real world constraints. For the rest of us, to start with observation of real world constraints is a much safer step.
4. Originality and creativity
This is rare even among very good economists. Even Friedman, whose professional ability was second to none, cannot described as very original and creative in the academic area (his most innovative idea must be the policy recommendation of educational voucher). Most of his ideas are very much the elaboration of thoughts from Marshall, Knight and Fisher. Although Schumpeter’s thinking is not free of flaws, I would argue that he is one of the most original and creative ones in the last century (to come up with the ideas of creative destruction and innovation).
Knowing ‘what is important’ is a gift. Douglas North, though not particularly creative and talented, is so good in detecting the ‘Big Fish’. His combination of history and new institutional economics creates large impact. In the history of economics, who gets a better taste than Adam Smith?