Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Report from Lindau: Day 0

I am right now at Lindau, Germany, where the 4th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences will take place during this week. Since 2004, Nobel Laureates and selected young researchers from all over the world meet in this beautiful island in the middle of Lake Konstanz to discuss their ideas and interact. In this edition, the Lindau Foundation has gathered 18 laureates and more than 370 young economists from more than 60 countries (although from my first impressions I would say that more than Germans dominate over all other nationalities).

Given the scientific potential of the meeting and the interesting discussions and plenary sessions in the programme I thought it would be a good idea to act as an improvised reporter for the Edinburgh Economics Blog and write a daily report on what will be going on here in Lindau.

Today we will have Nobel Laureates McFadden, Myerson and Stiglitz talking about sustainability and growth whereas Peter Diamond, Chris Pissarides and Dale Mortensen will talk about the future of employment in Europe (grim, I guess) and demographic change. I will report on the highlights of these discussions tomorrow.

For the time being let me tell you about the first thing related to meetings that I encountered at my arrival to Lindau: the banners you can see in the photo above. They were hung in front of the Conference Centre by ATTAC, Real Democracy Now and other organizations whose German names I cannot translate. As you can see, they ask economists to drop “neoliberal” ideas and to introduce ethics in Economics. The “Heterodox” economic views endorsed by these banners deserve more than one post, so let me just mention that they made me think about two ideas related to the Lindau meetings. First, how wrong these views are. They portrait Economics as a monolithic discipline, populated by Machiavellian and perverse scientists who are leading the world to chaos. To the very least, that vision is wrong because participants in the Lindau meetings include Nobel Laureates with such disparate thoughts as Akerlof and Stiglitz on the one side, and Scholes and Prescott on the other. If there is something absent in Economics at this moment is consensus (and that is a good thing).

Second, these protests highlight how badly we as economists have managed public perceptions of Economics (or how little we have cared about them), and also the extent to which this is due to the fact that for too long the discipline has been rowing in the direction of interested parties (as Nick Stern pointed out already two years ago). I will never get tired of repeating that the rational model of behaviour that we economists handle is descriptive rather than prescriptive and that it does not rule out other motivations. But I am not naïf enough to ignore that Economics has often treated selfishness (which is not equal to self-interest) as an all-encompassing view of human beings. Still, if anything, one of the causes of the present crisis is that the relentless force of selfishness has been underestimated.

Nobel Laureates and young economists will see these banners every day at the start and end of the sessions. I hope they will not ignore them. These banners represent both a reminder of our failures and a challenge for the future.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. But I think it says a lot about how narrow your view of Economics is when you consider Akerlof&Stiglitz and Scholes&Prescott to be wildly "disparate" types of economists. They all belong firmly in the orthodoxy, so it seems maybe the people who put those banners up are right in claiming that the orthodoxy has no idea what is going on outside of it. Furthermore, anyone who has won a Nobel Prize in Economics belongs firmly in the self-sustaining orthodoxy which refuses to consider alternatives to its ideas which have time after time been rejected by real-world phenomena. (