05/13/2011 12:42 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2011

Grumps, Dreamers, Bean Counters, Cool Cats and Shills: The Taxonomy of High Profile Economists

The dismal science has bred a fascinating collection of prominent species. While many economists toil away in obscurity, a small set of economists rise to fame, fortune or even both. Those leading lights of economics tend to fall in a few easily recognizable groups.

The Grumps: Ahh, the Grumps. We all know them. They sound like Mr. Wilson, Dennis The Menace's cranky next-door neighbor. Grumps are terrific at criticizing other people's work. They poke holes through theories and applications, concepts and methods like a machine gun through toilet paper. Grumps are great backseat drivers, Monday morning quarterbacks and every other cliché you can think of for someone who destructs to perfection but never actually constructs anything themselves. Grumps don't offer new ideas, because they know that their ideas would be criticized... they know it's much safer to just attack. Grumps are the archenemies of the Dreamers and cause Bean Counters to cower in pockets of small ideas.

The Dreamers: Dreamers believe that they can change the world with grandiose ideas and a few calculations. They occupy that rarefied air that is reserved for strategists who can never implement and visionaries who can't tie their shoelaces. Dreamers can't be troubled with error checking, detailed research, analysis of the real world or any of the mundane things that make economic output have any chance of validity. Dreamers are charismatic salesman, able to capture large crowds of non-experts with their glorious ideas then quickly hop away in their donor-subsidized Lear jet once they see a Grump approaching.

The Bean Counters:
These perfectionists only look into research questions if the conditions are as 100% ideal as they were taught in their freshmen year Introduction to Experimental Design class. Their topics are meaningful and their research papers are textbook examples of how to do science that is both internally valid (the conclusions are true for the population studied) but have absolutely no generalizability (you can't transfer the conclusions to other populations). Bean Counters aspire to do something meaningful but are so deathly afraid of taking on any large scale or strategic project since the analysis methods might not get them a solid A+.

The Cool Cats: The hipsters of the economics world. They wear fashion shades, write best-selling books and are guests on the Colbert Report, NPR and the Daily Show. Cool Cats jump from hot topic to hot topic, each one a fun idea for the public but with no potential for meaning or impact. They can tell you about the revolution in tooth paste dispenser design, how having friends who are plastic surgeons correlates with pre-mature wrinkling and the relationship between the length of your middle name and your life expectancy. The Cool Cats are jealous of the Dreamers' big ideas but are not taken seriously enough by the Grumps to even warrant criticism except to be asked, "Why don't you try doing economics for a change?"

Lastly, the Shills: Shills are bought and sold by their industry. They're the economists who lean forward after being quizzed, "What is 2 plus 2?" and ask, "How much would you like it to be?" Shills are found in most major industries but cluster in finance where they can sing the loudest and be paid the most for their lovely voices. Shills either graduated from top schools or proudly proclaim that they are ABD's (see the special note below). Other economists treat Shills with a healthy mix of contempt and wallet envy.

Next time you come across a prominent economist, see how long it takes before you can spot their species.

Special note about ABD's: A good friend of mine (Ph.D. in Math) pointed out that the only people who introduce themselves as having an ABD (All But Dissertation) are Shills who were once enrolled in Economics/Econometrics/Finance Ph.D. programs and dropped out to take lucrative jobs. He noted that they proudly offer themselves as being "equivalent to a Ph.D., but so valuable that the industry just couldn't wait for them to graduate" while people who dropped out of other Ph.D. programs are often ashamed. Those who try to convince you that an ABD is similar to a Ph.D. are blissfully ignoring the fact that researching, writing and defending the Ph.D. thesis is what takes the vast majority of time, effort and skill in a Ph.D. program. When he hears someone refer to themselves as an ADB, he replies, "where I'm from, those are called Masters degrees or Ph.D. dropouts. That is, unless your university printed a degree that says ABD with your name on it."

Please join Howard's Facebook Fan page