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.
I was extremely excited by the opportunity to attend the INET conference in Bretton Woods. The list of speakers was very impressive and the conference sessions covered a range of interesting topics. Although I was especially looking forward to the two sessions on the European Union (EU) and Asia, all of the sessions I attended were stimulating. I am finishing my undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Western Ontario, and therefore, lacked a defined area of study from which to relate the sessions. The various sessions and talks did, however, significantly shape (or rather reshape) my perception of the economic world and how it should be approached and studied. Overall, the conference struck me as working towards a set of global solutions and structures to deal with both current and future crises.
Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s lunchtime talk on Saturday started off the conference experience for the students. He asserted that rather than being an Anglo-American crisis, the current economic troubles are part of a grander global shift in the economic landscape. As a result, it is necessary to seek out global answers and institutions to deal with the shifting global economic structure. In many ways, the approach of seeking global solutions pervaded the entire conference — it had a truly global focus. While many sessions focused primarily on the regulation of the world financial system, there were also sessions specifically devoted to Asia and the EU. From this, I was able to put together a comprehensive view of the global situation as opposed to simply an Anglo-American centric view. This, of course, had striking implications for how I approached the remainder of the presentations and panel discussions. One of the primary goals of the conference was to seek global solutions, and the sessions did a fantastic job of placing the crisis in the context of a global set of issues.
The experience also highlighted a striking deficiency in my economic training. As it stands, it seems as though many economics programs do not provide adequate instruction with respect to general knowledge of the world economic system. On the evening of Saturday, April 9, we were able to sit in on the reports of the two Economics Curriculum Committee Task Forces on the possible restructuring of the undergraduate economics curriculum. The British task force emphasized the need to place a greater emphasis on the history of economic thought in economics undergraduate education. A general consensus also appeared to emerge between both the US and UK task forces on the necessity of teaching more applied economics, allowing students to apply economic ideas to real-world problems and, by extension, become more acquainted with the global economic system. In my own experience, I have been able to take courses on the global economic system, but the majority of economics courses seem to focus more on theory, while placing real-world aspects in a supplementary role. The sentiments of the UK and US task forces aligned closely with my feelings on the matter. My time at the conference highlighted both how complicated and difficult the global economic system is to understand, and also just how necessary attempts to do so are.
With the aim of global solutions and progress in mind, it was very energizing to see so many speakers from a multitude of different places. Hearing Andrew Sheng, the chief adviser to the China Banking Regulatory Commission (among other things), speak on the financial system provided a refreshing new perspective. Additionally, the panel in the session on the EU was primarily made up of European professors, which provided yet another set of differing and interesting perspectives. The conference was also privileged to have others from outside the US and UK academic or banking sectors, such as Louis Kuijs from the World Bank’s Chinese office, and Y.V. Reddy, who is the previous governor of the Reserve Bank of India. The diversity in occupations and perspectives could have hindered progress in the discussions, but instead it served to produce a more complete view of the global state of affairs. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, this facilitated proposed solutions to the global crisis (and, by extension, safeguards against future crises) that went beyond regulatory action in individual countries or sectors.
It is these sentiments, coupled with the very interesting presentations on the structural shifts occurring in Asia and “the rest” of the world that have most deeply affected the direction I would like to pursue with my studies. It is worth reiterating Gordon Brown’s point that the financial crisis is just one episode in the massive shift in the economic landscape. The rise of China, Brazil and India and their respective economic spheres of influence is the defining economic event of the coming years and will likely be the focus of much of the work to come out of our generation of future economists. One of the main themes of the conference was that it is now up to us, the conference participants (both students and economists), to be forward-looking and work to prevent any new crises. Taking this sentiment further, it is up to us to attempt to shape the shifting world order in such a way as to make previous mistakes impossible, or at least very difficult, to repeat. As a result, I intend to direct much more of my energy towards learning about the currently rising nations, or “the rest” as Fareed Zakaria put it. The presentations pertaining to China, especially those by Louis Kuijs and Victor Shih, were particularly interesting, and it was the sessions on Asia that I found the most intellectually stimulating. After learning so much about China’s growing place in the world economy, especially with respect to trade and finance, carrying out work on China and its rise in the world economy is a very appealing option. There is, of course, much more that I could say with respect to how the conference helped shape my thinking; however, the most important contribution that it has had on my world view was to broaden it significantly. The world economy is an extremely large and complex thing that is in constant flux, constantly remaking itself. Its interconnected nature makes viewing individual countries, or even regions, a generally inadequate strategy for creating an accurate view of most issues. The research and talks at this conference reinforced in me that we live in an increasingly interconnected and changing world, and highlighted the importance of viewing it as such.
For more information and videos from the INET conference, visit http://ineteconomics.org/initiatives/conferences/bretton-woods/agenda.
Aaron Weisbrod is an undergraduate student studying economics at the University of Western Ontario.