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Can Economics Keep Up?

As technology advances and the environment changes, some of the key assumptions underpinning mainstream economic thinking will become obsolete. To reverse the public's loss of confidence in the discipline, economists must get back to doing what made the field so valuable in the first place.

NEW YORK – When the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen received the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, a journalist is said to have asked them, “Between the two of you, who is the more talented?” Comparing musical and economic talent is in many ways meaningless. But Shankar offered an interesting response: “Teach me economics for a week and ask me to give a lecture; I will manage it without making a fool of myself. Now, teach my friend Amartya to play the sitar for a week and ask him to give a public performance….”

The story is probably apocryphal. Nonetheless, it highlights a distinctive feature of economics. In many academic disciplines, it is difficult for someone who lacks a reasonable command of the subject to give a lecture without embarrassment, even to a lay audience. Not so with economics. Generally speaking, the average layperson cannot easily tell the difference between good and bad economics, owing not least to the discipline’s broad range of content and disparate methodologies.

Economics has the virtue of accommodating those immersed in abstruse mathematics and axiomatic methods (Léon Walras, John Nash, and Kenneth Arrow) alongside those who delve into the world’s problems without recourse to symbols (Adam Smith, Thomas Schelling, and Gunnar Myrdal). But such a vast canvas tends to leave room for erroneous brushstrokes. And in deeply uncertain times like the present, when the world is being convulsed by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the digital revolution, it is easy to understand why many lay readers would grow exasperated with pronouncements from “economists.” How can the non-expert separate the wheat from the chaff?

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