Saturday, January 6, 2018

The open culture of academic economics

I'll be delivering the Presidential Address at the American Economic Association meetings in Philadelphia today, with a paper to follow later this year. I plan to talk and write about marketplaces, which I think are understudied parts of markets. And I think that market design has a bright future, both as a kind of engineering economics that can help people in very concrete ways, and as a way to shed new light on markets and how they work.

But I'm also finding this a moment to take a look backward as well as forward. Personally, looking backward fills me with feelings of gratitude: not only to my family and to my teachers and advisers, to my wonderful students and coauthors; but also to the profession of economics and all of you economists who made me welcome, although economics isn’t a subject in which I ever received any degree.

During my professional career I have participated in at least three academic insurrections, which brought game theory into economics, and experimental and behavioral economics, and most recently market design.  There have been other revolutions as well, in econometrics and computation and access to large linked data sets among others. And these revolutions have come about largely because economists are on the whole enthusiastic about finding new ways to explore the large swath of human behavior that makes up economics.

I hasten to add that this welcoming of new ideas isn't magical, or even immediately apparent. Like raising children, it's a slow process while it's going on, but it becomes clear in retrospect how fast it actually is. Paper by paper (referee report by referee report) academic economics can feel pretty conservative and resistant to change. But when you look at things at the time scale of decades, economics has opened up to new ideas very fast.

We've also been welcoming to intellectual immigrants: to people as well as ideas. I'm hardly alone among economists of my generation who don't have degrees in economics. A bunch of us rode in on the wave that brought game theory into economics. Not every discipline is as open to new ideas or new people.  This openness is something to treasure, gratefully and vigilantly.

Looking ahead, I hope we can continue to nurture this openness to both ideas and people.  Exciting things are happening in other disciplines (computer science, biology...), and there's plenty of room for cross fertilization between disciplines, as well among the diverse points of view and diverse people already "inside" economics.

Economics is still an early-stage science, so it's an exciting time to be an economist. There's lots of progress we still need to make, it's important for the world that we do so, and there are some indications of fruitful paths to follow.  I'm looking forward with substantial optimism.

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