The author is one of several CIGI-sponsored Canadian university students who attended the INET conference, Crisis and Renewal: International Political Economy at the Crossroads, at Bretton Woods, NH, April 8–11, 2011. Each student was asked to write a short reflection on the conference themes.
Upon arriving at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, on April 9, 2011, the significance of the location and impending conference activities suddenly became very apparent to me. I was standing where Keynes had once stood, in the same hallways where the original Bretton Woods agreement was signed in 1944. Not only that, but as I, and the rest of the student delegation, passed through security and registration, I realized that we were about to participate in economic policy discussions with leading economic thinkers from around the world. I felt incredibly lucky to have been sponsored by CIGI to attend such a conference. How often does a Ph.D. student from Canada get to listen to her mentors in person, talking about the most important economic issues of the time? As someone studying to be an international economist, I was eager to hear from leading economic thinkers at the conference in my field, including Joseph Stiglitz from Columbia University. As expected, I found various panellists’ views on the aftermath of the financial crisis and where we go from here to be very interesting. I particularly liked Stiglitz’s perspective on financial deregulation in Asia that echoed the message in his 2006 book entitled, Making Globalization Work. Stiglitz’s argument is that unfettered financial markets never work well, even if they are relatively well developed.
I had anticipated that sessions such as these would live up to my expectations — they most certainly did. What I did not expect, however, was that there would be serious discussions on the direction of the economics curriculum. At the end of our first day at the conference, we listened to Robert Skidelsky, chair of the British committee, and Perry Mehrling, chair of the American committee, speak about INET’s Economics Curriculum Committee Task Force, which has set out to change how economics is taught. I was quite struck by this session and by the discussion that continued at the student breakfast held the next day with INET Executive Director Robert Johnson, CIGI Executive Director Tom Bernes and Joseph Stiglitz, among others. Broadly, these discussions were somehow all related to the idea of making economics relevant; to reconnect what we learn in economics programs to the workings of the actual economy. This is the strongest message I took from the conference, and one that I believe I had lost along the way in my studies. As Skidelsky and Mehrling mentioned during their session, economists were unable to either predict or prevent the recession resulting from the 2008 financial crisis. They also pointed to the dominance of mathematical and quantitative techniques in economics that often narrow the methodological focus of the discipline, and the kinds of questions or puzzles we try to explain in economics.
When I started my Ph.D. in economics in 2007, my father (also an economist) said to me that less than one percent of the population will understand what I study or write my thesis on, and even less will care. He was lamenting the state of economics today, and that the average economics graduate program in Canada creates skilled technocrats who have a hard time saying anything about the real world. This is something that Stiglitz also touched on during the student delegation breakfast, when talking about the difficulty that technically skilled economics graduates face in non-academic jobs. As I crunched through the first two years of my Ph.D. program, I definitely felt what my father was saying and what Stiglitz reiterated. Now, having taught first year undergraduate tutorials in micro- and macroeconomics over the past two years while simultaneously working full time on my dissertation, I have repeatedly, and even more so since attending the conference at Bretton Woods, felt the need to reconnect to what drew me to economics in the first place.
At the beginning of my undergraduate studies in economics, my focus was on the real world. My parents were immigrants to Canada from India and Bangladesh, so I grew up acutely aware of the existence of devastating poverty in such developing countries. Perhaps not surprisingly, I wanted to study poverty and have something to say about policy. While my interests have changed slightly over time — I am now a trade economist, though still with a focus on development economics — I still want my research to be policy relevant. For this reason, a lot of my research has been applied work. I am also lucky to have learned from real-world experiences, having worked as an economist in the Canadian government and also in an international internship. This most certainly keeps me connected to what is relevant in the actual economy, and has given me the opportunity to develop the skills necessary for an economist in the workplace outside of academia. What I have learned from Bretton Woods is that I need to take this reconnection to the real world further.
A recurring theme in the discussion about the state of the economics curriculum included the need to establish the importance of economic history and the history of economic thought in undergraduate economics programs. At a graduate level, I believe there is a need to place all research in context. This is something that is done quite frequently in other disciplines (for example, social anthropology or political science), but seems to be lacking in economics research. Economic puzzles or research questions arise from actual events that usually do not occur independently of history, institutions and/or culture. From a methodology perspective, the economics discipline has addressed some of these issues by introducing dynamic theoretical or econometric models, so that the past is made relevant to economic outcomes today using such approaches. I have tried to include this kind of methodology in my own work. It seems, though, that this methodology is only a very small part of the solution. Introducing context requires that we address dynamics through a more qualitative discourse rather than a purely quantitative approach. This means not only understanding the historical context of a particular research question, but also understanding how economic thought has evolved relating to that question. This, and the broader idea of making economics more relevant, is a lesson that I will take from my experience at Bretton Woods, which I hope to keep at the forefront of my current and future research.
For more information and videos from the INET conference, visit http://ineteconomics.org/initiatives/conferences/bretton-woods/agenda.
Afshan Dar is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of economics at Carleton University.
Stiglitz, Joseph (2006). Making Globalization Work. New York: W. W. Norton & Company,