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Sunday, August 9, 2009

You just want to be on the side that's winning

The Economist recently published an excellent pair of articles on the future of, respectively, macroeconomics and financial economics in the aftermath of the financial crisis ("The state of economics: The other-worldly philosophers", July 16th, 2009). In the macro story, they outlined some of the various battlegrounds on which the modern macroeconomic consensus has been worked out - first Keynesian vs classical, then new-Keynesian vs neoclassical, then "freshwater" vs "saltwater". By the time the battles were over, a consensus had arisen which, they say, was destroyed by the events of the past 12 months. However, The Economist holds out hope:

Thanks to the seismic events of the past two years, the prestige of macroeconomists is low, but the potential of their subject is much greater. The furious rows that divide them are a blow to their credibility, but may prove to be a spur to creativity.

Excellent. Nothing could give me more pleasure than the prospect of entering a discipline which is in the process of rebuilding itself, particularly when that discipline has been so deeply divided in the past. If a new consensus is what we need then I and my classmates are going to be right there, striving to understand the old arguments, struggling with the new realities of the economic world, doing our best to bring one to the other and make something better from the synthesis. We'd like to think it's what we're being trained for. After all, we've all studied both new-Keynesian and neoclassical macro this year; incomplete though our understanding may be (and it must be, after barely six months on each), this roundedness can only be an asset in the strange new world of macro.

But what's this? Our new-Keynesian professors are rubbishing the neoclassical assumption of full employment. Our neoclassical lecturers are scoffing at the new-Keynesian focus on short-run welfare improvements. Each side is deliberately presenting the other's arguments as facile. The two camps are not engaging with each other. They are not accepting their own shortcomings, nor the other's strengths. They are pushing us, their semi-educated students, small units of the future of macro, to choose a side. Now. At the age of 23, before experiencing either the real or the the academic worlds, we are being required to put ourselves in intellectual boxes.

Intellectual boxes are the past of macro. Mutual understanding is the future. Vitriol, like that quoted at the start of The Economist article, is counterproductive; measured debate should be brought into the public arena. If, as The Economist suggests, we are a discipline with a credibility problem, then it's well past time for us to lay this pettiness aside.

I will not choose a side. I opt out of the battle. If I wish to believe in both full employment and imperfect capital markets, I will. Where I see strengths, I shall use them, and where I see weaknesses, I shall cast them out. This is our right as students: to be shown all sides of any debate, and allowed to draw our own conclusions. When our lecturers and mentors seek to pin us down to one side or the other of a defunct intellectual debate, they are failing in their moral duties as educators - and putting their own discipline at risk of falling into irrelevance forever.

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