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Reflections on the ISIPE Open Letter | Yuan Yang

Words by Yuan Yang 杨缘, China Tech Correspondent, Financial Times and Co-founder, Rethinking Economics

“It is not only the world economy that is in crisis. The teaching of economics is in crisis too, and this crisis has consequences far beyond the university walls.” A group of economics students and I wrote these opening words to the ISIPE Open Letter six years ago, when I lived in Beijing for the first time.

Since then I’ve met fellow thinkers in many other cities who recognise the crisis in contemporary economics education. After finding systems theory economists in Beijing, I met historians of central banking in Toronto, post-Keynesians in London, ecological economists in St Gallen, and a group that is now working on modern monetary theory in New York. I met these friends, and more, through the ISIPE Open Letter, the work of Rethinking Economics and the Institute of New Economic Thinking, among many other organisations. It’s been my great pleasure to learn from and disagree with all of my newfound friends.

Disagreement is vital to sharpening our senses and understanding of the world. Those of us who co-authored the ISIPE Open Letter were convinced there is far too little disagreement and debate in economics teaching. In my undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford and my graduate degree at the London School of Economics, two questions were too rarely heard in the classroom: “how do we judge if this is a good theory?” and “how do we apply this to the real world?”.

I understand why we had too little time to debate such questions: we were all busy completing the intense curricula we were given. I am glad to have had deep schooling in one method of economics: neoclassical modelling. But I graduated with one big hammer rather than a diverse toolbox.

It does not have to be like this. Economics teaching at my undergraduate university, for example, was much more diverse a few decades before I arrived in 2008. Economic history and history of economic thought used to be taught. Economics undergraduates were expected to grapple with facts and disagreements, not just models.

In fact, the work of the student movement behind ISIPE has meant that some departments have revamped or augmented their curricula. We were both drivers and followers of a wider movement in the “post-crash” era. Students, teachers, governments and employers, such as the Bank of England, were starting to debate the question of whether economics departments — and graduates — were fit for purpose.

There are still departments that have not changed. When I asked a well-known professor of economics why they did not support more diversity of schools of thought in the new curriculum they launched, they told me they thought undergraduates would be confused by debating different approaches to economic analysis.

I have much more belief in students than that professor did. In a strange way, being a correspondent for the Financial Times in Beijing for the past four years has reminded me of shades of that professor’s rhetoric: Chinese people aren’t suited to free speech because disagreement and debate is socially destabilising, so one theory goes. I don’t buy it.

The crises of the world economy are not over. They may be just beginning. It is uncanny to read the Open Letter six years on and find myself agreeing not only with its prescriptions, but with its assessment of the world.

The friends I have met through ISIPE are flung across the world, continuing their new economic thinking in their own ways. Because I am no longer in an economics department, I am able to draw on any sources I like in reporting on China’s economy, so long as they are convincing and well-evidenced. FT editors, unlike university appointment committees, will not cry foul if my explanations do not come with a side helping of 18th-century mathematics. What works, works.

My fellow Open Letter writers who were starting PhD programs have now graduated. Some are working for think tanks, governments, and the private sector, where they are able to exercise more varied economic thinking. Many are in universities, trying to create new paths for economics. Some are working for organisations that grew directly out of our fomenting of ideas, such as Rethinking Economics and its sister group Economy. Either because we’re pluralists, or from a statistical fluke, nobody has ended up doing boring work. I hope that as our movement continues to grow, we can gather old friends together, and have some brilliant disagreements.

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