Promises and the history of the future

d0109eb3The Economist has just published a list of ten names of young economists who, according to “leading authorities”, represent the future of the discipline  It does so every ten years and prides itself on singling out Paul Krugman twenty years ago and Steven Levitt ten years ago.


But is there any interest in reading such article beyond the “who’s who and who’s doing what” we perform as members of the profession, any relevant feature for the historian?

By naming what they see as the most “promising” young economists, the profession attempts to redefine itself and to build a suitable historical canons for that purpose (with the limit that we can’t separate the economists’ words from the journalists’). Interesting features of the paper include the insistance on the use of data, the wit in their use and the ability to reach counterintuitive results as the major criterion for scientific brightness, the focus field and experimental research rather that theoretical work and the defintion of economics by its empirical character rather than its subject matter or method; the end of macro, the emergence of “granular” thinking and the generalisation of the micro-behavioral-problem solving approach; the “medical” analogy (or at least reference, although it is unclear whether it stem from economists themselves or journalists); Frank Ramsey as the hero of this generation (and an excellent prospect for Pedro); the golden age of development economics, and the nascent public exposition of economists through blogs (and the associated willingness how sexy and fun economic research is?)


I wonder whether such exercice reflect or influence the shape of economics, but also how it might inform our historical outlook on it. For such building of a future is not only an interesting historical object in itself. It challenges our tendancy to write the history of general equilibrium, monetary economics, macroeconomics, e.g. big bodies and let subfields such as development economics underresearched, to focus on Chicago and Cowles while Harvard and MIT appear as leading places, it requires an understanding of the reasons why the heros, the advertising strategy evolve.


2 thoughts on “Promises and the history of the future

  1. I may be taking this move a bit too often this days, but it seems to me that “the subject is not the subject.” So I am inclined to not care much about the content of the list and what fields or approaches it singles out. To me it is far more interesting the process of choice: how the Economist magazine hides its journalists, how the big departments elbow one another to put their people in the list, the way this list might raise the prestige and funding of individuals and departments. Ultimately, I am left with the question, what professions do this active searching for the next big thing? And why do they?

    Related to this, check David Warsh’s latest article in Economic Principals carrying the news that the AEA is turning the JB Clark Medal into a yearly prize. Again the values, the culture of the young genius. Maybe a history of the “consumption” of Frank Ramsey will help us figure this out…

  2. I think the two sides are interesting: Beatrice’s point that these accounts do shape economics to some extent, and Tiago’s interest in how such lists are produced and the many intricate issues involved in it.
    I believe the construction of canons is an almost daily exercise scientists do and it is a crucial part of the knowledge they create: from “literature review” in the introductions of papers to articles in the Economist or in interviews. And the great admiration (fixation?) for the prodigy, as Ramsey, has also much to do with the changes in mathematics discussed by Amir Alexander (ISIS 97(4), Dec. 2006) and the mathematization of economics. But it goes beyond that in ways I do not fully understand: scientists in general like to pass the image of prodigies (caution: this should be true only from a certain point in time to nowadays), with the seminal contributions to science made by young bright scientists (who have also a “strange” life-style, may go mad soon after making such contributions, etc).

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