MICHAEL MUSSA was joking about economists. It was appropriate because some 7,000 of them were running around hotels in the Back Bay area here this week with nametags on their lapels or dresses, attending hundreds of meetings of the American Economic Association (AEA) and allied groups.
There are two things wrong with the country, said the economic counselor to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). We have turned over the health-care system to doctors and we have turned over the legal system to lawyers.
The good thing, he continued, is that we haven't turned over the economy to economists.
But that's not really the case, responded Martin Feldstein, a Harvard University economist and former top economic adviser to President Reagan. The Federal Reserve, the most powerful economic policy body in the United States, is headed by an economist, Alan Greenspan. In a few minutes, he added, the undersecretary of the Treasury, economist Lawrence Summers, would receive the most prestigious of awards by the AEA, the John Bates Clark Medal. And Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a ``pseudo-economist'' himself, had economist Lawrence Katz as a key adviser.
Mr. Mussa had to admit that economists were ``influential'' in world affairs, the topic of the hallway conversation.
Indeed, his own multilateral institution, the IMF, has won ``a great deal of press prominence'' because of its role in encouraging reforms in Russia and other countries that had formed the Soviet Union and in the nations of eastern Europe.
But, Mussa added, the IMF with its multitude of economists has always influenced economic policy of third world countries, especially during the 1980s debt crisis.
Asked if economists had become more powerful, Zvi Griliches, president of the 27,536-member AEA this year, said: ``If you see the rate people are complaining about us, we must be more visible.''
As nations are becoming more economically interdependent, people want help from economists in dealing with the resulting challenges, he says.
The US is the leading nation in the world for economic study and research. Foreigners who studied economics at American universities have spread around the world, many holding influential positions in government and business.
But others are staying here.
Since 1979, for instance, between 1,000 and 2,000 Chinese have studied economics or economic-related disciplines at US schools, notes Bruce Reynolds, a China specialist at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
By now, those who stayed behind have formed their own Chinese Economists Society with about 300 members.
One such Chinese economist who got his doctorate from Ohio State University and now is teaching in a university in mid-New York State (he wanted to remain anonymous) said that one reason his countrymen do not go back is the difficulty of finding an appropriate job in China.
Academics at Chinese universities or bureaucrats are not always keen on hiring a PhD economist because it means that if they have only a master's degree, they may have to give up an apartment to the higher-ranking new professor.
And not many private companies have developed sufficiently to need an economist on staff.
Yet the job market for economists has been weak in the US, he noted. So some of his colleagues have taken jobs in Hong Kong, even though that enclave will return to Chinese control in 1997.