Young Scholars Initiative

The Growing Movement to Rethink Economics

By Alexander Haas and Lu Liu

What started out in 2012 as a small conference under the label of “Rethinking Economics” at the University of Tübingen in Germany has now grown across Europe.

After the very positive feedback received last year, committed economics students from Germany and the UK, were able to spread the idea and hold two sister conferences this year, one in London and one in Tübingen. The participants of 2012 were this year’s organizers, as the 2013 “Rethinking Economics” events attracted nearly 300 dedicated students, professionals, and prominent lecturers on the weekend of June 28 -30.

With their professional organization and provocative agendas, the organizing teams won two of the first Young Scholars Event Grants from the Institute for New Economic Thinking. But the collaboration with the Institute goes way back to the very first days of the “Rethinking Economics” idea, when Institute President Rob Johnson visited our inaugural conference in Germany in 2012. Over pizza and a live screening of the European Football Championship, the cornerstones where laid for mutually inspiring ideas and initiatives for the future.

Exciting participating students and scholars alike, this year’s conferences were able to build on this initial success and energy and go even further. In interactive workshops and panel discussions both students and faculty had a unique chance to dive deep into important topics and exciting new research that are usually excluded from the mainstream economics curriculum.

In London, the new event met with great demand and enthusiasm from students and scholars across the UK and beyond. Some people flew from as far as Denmark and France to meet like-minded peers and debate important economic issues and theories.

The conference touched on a variety of pressing economic topics. Discussions included climate policy (including a debate between Cameron Hepburn and Richard Tol, and a lecture by Kate Raworth and Miriam Kennet), financial economics and the current crisis (Gabriel Palma), the history of economic thought (Chris Brooke) empirical economics (Vassilis Hajivassiliou and Steve Pischke), and many more.

Interactive workshops enabled the participants to dig further and engage in themes such as “The debt and austerity cycle”, “The potential for money to be created for the common good,” and “How we can rethink economics together.”

Two inspiring keynotes, one by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang in London and one by graduate student Jan-David Bakker in Tübingen, kicked off the events and invited participants to retrace the history of economic ideas, rethink economic theory, and formulate their own thoughts on its shortcomings, in favor of methodological pluralism.

In Tübingen, this year’s agenda followed up on last year’s. While the 2012 conference put an emphasis on epistemology and the history of economic science, stressing the methodological plurality of recent economic research was the major goal this time. Over the course of the three days, Inske Pirschel from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy and Tobias Kalenscher from the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf introduced participants to the topics of neuroeconomics and behavioral economics and questioned standard economics assumptions such as the transitivity of preferences.

Engelbert Stockhammer presented Post-Keynesian economics and an alternative approach to the 2008 financial crisis in his two workshops, and both Co-Pierre Georg and Doyne Farmer offered fascinating insights into complexity economics and agent-based modeling.

Generally, an area of focus during this year’s conferences was the emerging field of agent-based modeling in macroeconomics. With Alan Kirman in London and Doyne Farmer in Tübingen, the events featured two of the most distinguished researchers in the field of complexity economics and agent-based modeling, who presented and discussed their current research with students and scholars. It was a truly rewarding experience for both sides. As Doyne Farmer put it in Tübingen: "It was a great experience to work with young people who want to explore new ways to do economics."

Both venues reached a goal modern economics too often fails to achieve nowadays: They served as a stage for interdisciplinary exchange and open discussion between different schools of economic thought.

One of the most important reasons to organize the conferences had been, in the words of the organizers, “the divide between these schools and the absolute predominance of so called mainstream theories,” Considering the tremendous turnout and the active discussions during the weekend, it was evident that the organizing students were not the only ones yearning for a chance to experience the pluralism they miss at their home universities.

In fact, committed DSGE macroeconomist Johannes Pfeifer applauded the conference for “its clear agenda of identifying the greatest weaknesses of current macroeconomic modeling, inviting leading scholars to outline potential alternatives, and discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the competing approaches.” He also added:

Too often there is an overly simplistic “mainstream bashing” lurking behind the label “rethinking economics,” providing for no positive alternatives except for a different exegesis of long-dead economic thinkers. In contrast, this year’s workshops focused on current, cutting-edge research outside of the mainstream that has already shown its promise and potential to become part of the standard toolkit of macroeconomists. […] I learned a lot about agent-based modeling, a relatively new research approach to modeling macroeconomic systems. Research in this area is currently confined to a relatively small community and usually not presented at the big international macroeconomic conferences. Thus, the conference presented a welcome glimpse into the frontier of this field.

The two conferences in London and Tübingen stand for more than a mere discussion of academic topics. The events helped build a growing community of new economic thinkers who are now working together around the world to rethink economics. The turnout and enthusiasm was a sign of students’ commitment to discussing the current situation in economics as it relates to the real world, a subject they care deeply about. They were there not only to formulate critiques and demand pluralism but also to actively engage in the process of finding new and innovative answers and to build the community that can sustain their efforts going forward.

Around the world, a new network is forming, and motivated students are now already looking ahead and thinking about participating with hosting their own events in 2014 aimed at rethinking economics.

No doubt, the idea these conferences represent has hit a nerve and many students agree: It seems like it’s about time to rethink economics.