Why is economics not a force for good and what must we do to make it so? Cambridge 8th NOV 2019

On 8th November, at the invitation of Professor Antara Haldar of Cambridge University, I presented this talk in the context of a fascinating group of academics who gathered in the Cambridge Union’s upstairs seminar room to revive Keynes’ original idea of the Cambridge Circus – a radical circle of economists seeking the kind of economics that can be a force for good. Warning: This is a wonkish (technical) presentation. However, to compensate, on the previous night, Professor Margaret Levi (Sanford and I) discussed the same question in front of the Cambridge Union in less technical terms of course. See below for the video:

The Cambridge Circus and the Reinvention of Economics , November 8-9, 2019, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge

Convenor: Antara Haldar (Cambridge)

The Concept

Cambridge has been home to some of the most fundamental scientific breakthroughs in history—from gravity to evolution to the discovery of DNA. Yet no less significant is its role in shaping the discipline that, increasingly, forms the organising logic of every aspect of society: economics. Originally taught as a part of the “moral sciences”—alongside psychology and philosophy—it is the birthplace of modern economics; the site of invention of everything from the demand and supply curves to macroeconomics. Even while becoming increasingly algebraic, however, the Cambridge School, at the height of its glory, treated economists, in Keynes’ words, as “mathematician, historian, stateman and philosopher.” In the post-war world, led now by a different Cambridge—on the other side of the Atlantic—the rupture between economics and all else was more radical. But the epistemic elitism of the Boston Brahmins of economics, modelling the subject on physics or engineering, a priesthood closely guarding its secrets from the arts, humanities and even the rest of the social sciences, has had dire consequences for the world around it—resulting in untenable levels of inequality, the rise of populism, seismic shifts in the global economy and the biggest global financial crisis since the Great Depression. The “Common Currency” project at Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts Social Sciences and Humanities, will confront the grave dangers of the current crisis in economics—and seek to shatter the existing epistemic silo. By bringing together, in an initial opening event fifteen to twenty of the most significant thinkers within the academy—and beyond—it will attempt to join the dots between advances at the frontiers of economics (in behavioural, institutional and information economics, for instance), but also link the discourse of economics with the broader conversation and strive to locate, once again, its emotional pulse. It will, thus, engage—in addition to economists—philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and historians, as well as artists, writers, activists and, crucially, the public. The dialogue will lead to the publication of a collection of essays, and, equally, art installations, theatre workshops, films and strategic media partnerships. The goal is to create the nucleus for a conversation around which an eventual epistemic revolution in the discipline can crystalise—one that is monumental enough to respond to the fierce urgency of the empirical challenges of today’s world posed by climate change and the rise of AI, rather than devoted to mere methodological tweaking. The event will lead to the adoption of the “Cambridge Declaration on Economics” outlining a bold new paradigm for a more “embedded” mode of value-based economic analysis—motivated by the idea that economics is far too important to be left to economists alone. In the golden age of Cambridge economics, the future of the discipline was regularly debated by a core group of scholars: Keynes called this the “Cambridge Circus”. Seeking to reclaim Cambridge’s place in shaping global economic history—let’s bring the circus back to town!