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Archive for July 27th, 2010

Today, I attended an informal discussion with a senior scholar at the think tank where I work. The discussion was for other junior staff like myself, so we could learn about how that scholar came to be where he is, what his research was about, etc. Towards the end of the discussion, I asked him, “What value is there in understanding the history of economic thought?” He thought about this for a second, and then talked about his training at the University of Chicago.

Not too long before he got there (this would’ve been during the 80s), they decided to remove history of economic thought from the core curriculum, which was pretty grueling at that point. George Stigler had taught the course for years, and thought this class was extremely important to give students some perspective. However, he decided that there was a high opportunity cost of class time in the 2 year core curriculum, and that the classes giving young economists necessary tools were more important. Perspective would come with time, as immersion in the field would force an academic to read the historical literature. The scholar himself also seemed divided on this issue, but said that ultimately, he did get the needed perspective in the years to come.

I chose not to press him on these questions, as other RAs were eager with some more practical questions. I suppose I should have asked him how an economist gets the historical thought perspectives not directly related to the subfield, or even those that have not won in the battlefield of ideas but may still hold insights. In any case, this particular scholar seems relatively pleased with the toolkit that economics offers, and the process by which insights are made and formed into policy recommendations. Perhaps for his subfield of international finance, this is more or less true. For economics as a whole, though, it could be that a loss of perspective is leading to narrow sets of questions being asked.

In any case, this brief seminar seemed to further alienate me from wanting to be an economist. Even after the crisis, it seems the focus is on figuring out the next unifying idea (e.g. systemic risk), rather than taking a step back and reconsidering the discipline’s inherent biases. Learning history of economic thought is not a cure-all, but forcing one’s self to have some perspective early on will undoubtedly lead to better critical thinking, even if one’s toolkit is a little slower in developing (of course, the toolkit should probably be vastly changed as well). I then ask myself, is this discipline one that I really want to enter?

Whither economic thought, whither my very short career? These are the questions plaguing me…

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