Amartya Sen on the lessons of the crisis and the importance of the history of economic thought

17 April, 2012 at 14:57 | Posted in Economics, Theory of Science & Methodology | Leave a comment

Interviewed by Olaf Storbeck and Dorit Hess, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen made some interesting remarks on the state of modern economics:

Question: Professor Sen, do you have the impression that economists and economic policy makers are learning the right lessons from the most severe economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression?

Answer: I don’t think that at all. I’m quite disappointed by the nature of economic thinking as well as social thinking that connects economics with politics.

You make a lot of references to old economic thinkers like Smith, Keynes and so on. However, if you look at the current economic research that is published in the journals and taught at universities, the history of economic thought does not play a big role anymore…

Yes, absolutely. The history of economic thought has been woefully neglected by the profession in the last decades. This has been one of the major mistakes of the profession. One of the earliest reminders that we are going in the wrong direction has come from Kenneth Arrow about 30 years ago when he said: These days, I get surprised when I find the students don’t seem to know any economics that was written 25 or 30 years ago.

Is there any hope that this trend can be reversed?

Yes, I’m quite optimistic in this regard. I get the impression that this seems to be getting corrected right now. I’m particularly delighted that the corrective has come to a great extent from student interest. I’m very struck by the fact that at the university where I teach – Harvard – the demand for more history of economic thought has mostly come from students. As a result there is a lot more attempt by the department of economics as well as history and government to look for the history of political economy. Last year, along with my wife Emma Rothschild, I offered a course on Adam Smith’s philosophy and political economy. It drew a lot of interest and we got some of the finest students at Harvard.

Do you think the focus on mathematics in current economics is the flip side of the neglect of the history of economic thought?

I don’t think that there is any conflict between mathematical reasoning and being interested in the history of thought. Many of our early thinkers were quite mathematical. The connection between mathematics and economics is very strong, and there is no reason to be ashamed of it. What is to be avoided is to be concentrated only on mathematical economics. We must not neglect the insights that come from parts of the subject where mathematics is not sensible to use and different kinds of reasoning are useful. I don’t think the conflict is between mathematics and other kinds of methods. The conflict is between taking an integrated, broad, comprehensive view as opposed to a narrow view whether it is mathematical or anti-mathematical.

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