During last years' INET conference at Bretton Woods I wrote:
Re-Kindleberger: I've learned that new economic thinking means reading old books.
Okay, that's not quite fair, but one of the themes of the Institute for New Economic Thinking conference I'm at has been to reintroduce economic history into the undergraduate and graduate programs. I think that's a good idea, as I've said many times, and not just a course on the history of economic thought. There's also a lot we can learn from studying the economic history of the US and other countries. ...
Update: Brad DeLong adds:
Actually, it is not not quite fair, it is fully fair.
This year I'm trying to understand how the attempt to introduce "new economic thinking" into the profession has evolved over the last three years. One new innovation this year is to invite students to the conference, and as explained here the response was much larger than expected.
I think this is a step in the right direction. Change won't come from the older, established economists who comprise most of the audience -- gray hair is in excess supply here -- change will come from the younger generation. One of them will come up with a new idea, a new model -- something that pushes the established lines in a way that creates momentum as others join in to push the model forward. I don't mean that older economists who are here won't try to change the world, or that they can't provide the spark that generates the new idea. It's also entirely possible that an established economist will come up with the foresight needed to push the frontier.
But I believe that change will come from the young, not the old who are mostly set in their ways and mostly adhere to boundaries defined by the models they already know. You can teach an old dog new ticks, surely, but the established economists are mostly set in their ways and will continue to pursue the familiar and the safe. Starting over with a brand new research agenda when you are in your 40s or 50s is possible I suppose, and I'm sure there are examples of this, but for most it would be too hard and too risky.
Similar risks exist for the young. Setting out in a new direction is hazardous, and if it doesn't pan out tenure will not be granted. It is much easier to contribute to existing knowledge than to create brand new knowledge, and it's much easier to publish as well. So even for the young the established path is very attractive.
That's why bringing students here is important. All these names they've heard, some that they are in awe of -- Nobel prize winners and the like -- are here and they are sending the younger economists an important message. They are signaling that there are are established economists in the very best departments who play key editorial roles in important journals who are receptive to good ideas. When Joe Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, James Heckman and many more names like that stand up and endorse the push to think about economics in a new way, it could give a student with a new idea, and the understandable hesitation that comes with it, the confidence to carry it through. If it works out, there's a good chance some very well-known and respected economists will help to push the idea forward, or at the very least be open-minded, and that provides important motivation to those who might discover something new.
But we have to be careful too. If we push students to try new ideas rather than the established path, and the ideas go nowhere in the end that could do harm to the individual's career. So what we also need to do -- and I admit that I'm not quite sure how to do this -- is to teach the students, as best we can anyway, what a good idea looks like. What makes a new idea more likely to be successful? What makes it more likely to be received by important journals? How can a student know whether to push forward or to back off?
I think the answer is mentorship of the type that exists between a Ph.D. candidate and their advisor, at least a good one. Part of that process is to help the students ask the right questions about their research, how to find the potential holes and fill them, and so on. So all of us who are pushing the profession to investigate new ideas and new directions need to be willing to talk to students about their ideas, ask them the questions they ought to ask themselves, read preliminary drafts that come by email out of the blue, and help in other ways as we can. We need to provide guidance and at the same time not inhibit the search for new and better paths forward, a somewhat delicate task.
It would be better, of course, if older, established economists did this. They have tenure, and that protects them if things don't work out in the end. They won't be given a terminal year and shoved out the door. But, again, I just don't think that's where change will come from. Instead, it's up to the young. The best we can do is to provide guidance freely, encourage the good ideas and redirect the lesser ones, provide motivation, and to the extent possible shield them from those who are only out to protect their own traditional research from new ideas that challenge their research programs.
Finally, for the conference in the future, it would help if the students were better integrated into the general conference instead of being housed in a separate location, watching a live feed of the conference, and visiting for 10 or 15 minutes with the well-known economists who are willing to come over and visit. Allowing students to attend was a last minute innovation, and I'm told this was the best they could do under the circumstances, but hopefully this will change in the future.