Young Scholars Want More Voices Heard in Economics

No one person or perspective holds the key to solving economic problems, says Jay Pocklington of the Institute for New Economic Thinking

Jay Pocklington is the manager of the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s Young Scholars Initiative (YSI), a network of over 15,000 students, young professionals, and others who challenge old ways of approaching the economy and seek to forge new paths.
This year during the coronavirus pandemic, Pocklington and his colleagues held the community together with a virtual plenary that attracted 10,000 people from around the globe. The organizers collected questions from attendees about how economics can address the world’s most pressing issues. A key theme that emerged was inclusion – the need to open up the field to more voices from other disciplines, from heterodox positions, from more regions of the world, and from people of a variety of backgrounds, races, genders, and identities.
Pocklington spoke to Lynn Parramore about the call for change in the economics profession from up-and-coming practitioners.

Lynn Parramore: What attracted you to economics and how did you come to feel that things needed to change?

Jay Pocklington: I was attracted to its promise to explain large-scale social phenomena, to give me the bird’s eye view, the big picture. But from the start of my studies in 2006, the introductory courses failed to capture my imagination because they were devoid of any institutional and historical context, and because my department had few resources to make the class settings compelling.

The financial crisis hit a year later. At the time I was already a teaching assistant, and the students and I had decided to dedicate the start of every class to discussing current events. Overwhelmingly, my class wanted to discuss and understand the unfolding crisis, but there was nothing but awkward silence throughout my department. I had to admit to my friends and family that I had no idea what was happening, and that I knew nobody who did. It was a remarkable moment of ‘the emperor has no clothes.’ The disconnect between what was happening in the world around me and in the classroom could not have been clearer.

LP: Can you say a bit about the YSI vision and what kinds of young thinkers it attracts?

JP: We understood from the very beginning that the community would be global. We also knew that we had to build a positive vision for how we wanted economics to be conducted, and how we could play our part in creating such spaces in our community day-to-day. Back in 2013, we tasked a committee of 18 members with three representatives from each major region of the world to draft our initial plans for building our community.

This process was instrumental to how we still operate today, because it involved listening and understanding problems and considering the aspirations that young scholars have in vastly different parts of the world. This to me was a humbling experience and it was clear that the role this community would play could not be narrowed to a singular goal such as ‘curriculum reform’ or ‘let’s promote X or Y theory.’ It was about the world of economics we wanted to live in, which is described in this guiding principle: “We envision economic thinking that is free of intellectual barriers, resonates with reality, and serves our global society.”

Our vision statement and guiding principles could not anticipate what exactly we’d do to build this community, but it gave us clarity of vision on how we’d want to do it. This for me was a formative and empowering step in the community’s development. We concerned ourselves with the big questions our discipline needed to answer and challenged ourselves on how such thinking could be developed. We know that we ultimately are global citizens and that we are in this together.

More fundamentally, YSI is about connecting people, ideas and bodies of knowledge and questions in a power neutral space. Everyone is welcomed on equal footing. You should be completely free to think, question, and develop yourself in concert with others. It’s a remarkably different environment from what students are used to because they are met with cooperation instead of competition, with support instead of resistance. We find it intellectually stimulating to give a sense of possibility and ownership in building this community. And it gives a feeling of belonging instead of feeling out of place. There is a special kind of intimacy and trust in YSI and it is infectious. That sense of community is a big reason why YSI is quickly becoming the de-facto alma mater for all those students in the world who have been falling through the cracks and who receive little support and encouragement elsewhere. This is why we have such a dedicated body of members and why I’m confident our alumni will stick around.

LP: What was it like to have a virtual plenary this year? What were some of the themes that emerged?

JP: For a community like YSI that thrives on building bridges and connecting people, the pandemic put up a huge new barrier. Fortunately, we had always been operating a hybrid model of in-person and virtual events. The move to online-only, however, posed a serious challenge, which we met through social entrepreneurship.

Before the pandemic, the YSI Plenary was lined up to be the biggest global gathering of the community to date, and we expected around 1,000 participants to meet in Budapest this past September. Moving such an event online and on short notice was a tremendous undertaking by everyone involved. Can an online event really build community? Can it be engaging? Can we avoid Zoom fatigue? Can we make everyone feel that they are part of it?

We wanted to develop a new format with community at the heart that new and old members could engage in. We decided to create a collaborative process on exploring questions, and we also put an emphasis on being social. We created a forum called “Social Island” in which members could to get to know each other in a social setting. Each working group had a virtual “fun ship” in which to meet. We used a lot of playful metaphors, but it was serious at its core.

The themes that emerged in the gathering were twofold. The first was centered on large-scale societal challenges, such as climate change, inequality and economic development, and how our societies can deal with the rifts and transformations that come with new digital technologies. We also asked deep and fundamental questions about economics, and how our discipline can address these challenges and which roles economists can and should play.

LP: The first of the “100 questions” you gathered from participants pertained to the topic of inclusion in the economics field, a theme that also came up in the sessions. What sort of inclusion are we talking about it?

JP: There’s a saying, “If you want better answers, you need better questions.” In this sense, inclusion is about openness and asking questions – a beautiful way to be and remain open.

Economics has become defined by a method (‘thinking like an economist’), not the questions it tries to answer. The profession has focused on applying a narrow set of methods to each economic reality. Within this thinking, important questions cannot even be asked or inadequately captured. Yet we keep the pretense that we have something meaningful to say. This is benign at best, but more often than not it is harmful.

This intellectual narrowing stands in stark contradiction to the roots of economics in philosophy and it is truly counter to including different economic realities and stifles innovation in thinking and policy. It also contributes to the exclusion of many groups in society and entire parts of the world.

In simply starting by asking questions we can begin removing some of these barriers and embrace the many backgrounds experiences into the community. It is perhaps more challenging, that’s true! It forces us to be able to be good listeners, communicate better and be humbler. But it makes us better economic thinkers and sets us up to be contributors to society and be the change we want to see.

LP: It’s good to be inclusive just in terms of fairness, but there’s also the issue of getting things right in the discipline. Do you think economists actually produce the wrong results when there aren’t enough diverse voices weighing in? Have you seen this happen?

JP: This is a critical point. The power structures and the emphasis on methods give a huge bias towards men and the Global North, the United States in particular. There is a nexus of journals accepting only certain types of papers, ‘top’ universities and their Ph.D. programs with their uniform curricula, and hiring practices around the world that are based on the proximity and conformity to this core. This means that top economic departments and governments around the world hire graduates from this core. This contributes to the inadequacy of economics because those who are succeeding in our discipline do so by conforming to ‘thinking like an economist’ instead of truly engaging and being grounded in the problems we need to face.

LP: How do you deal with the fact that orthodox thinking is still so dominant in the field? How, for example, do young people align themselves with heterodox thinking when academic success and jobs are so dependent on toeing the line?

JP: This is a core challenge for members of our community. Publish or perish is real, and so are the pressures to conform, find funding, and compete for few positions. Many of our members have great uncertainty about their future and prospects for a career.

Creating a better support systems across the entire spectrum of career steps, be it academic or professional, can make a big difference to helping young scholars cope and persevere. We are still in the process of building those in YSI. What we offer is the feeling that you are not alone — there are many more like you, and we are in this together over the long haul.

We help our members make and find their niche, provide mentorship, to develop a persistence and perseverance. Our work in YSI in building research cooperation with partner organization is very unusual for graduate students. Our members are much better connected, have more confidence to take initiative, and are ready to take responsibility in building positive and inclusive environments. Increasingly that is also what departments and organizations value.

LP: What kinds of research would help move economics toward a more inclusive perspective?

JP: The baseline in YSI is that we start with a topic, not a method. In attempting to answer a big question, you intuitively need to draw from a wide range of perspectives and from other disciplines to come closer to answering it. No person, no perspective alone holds the key.

Big challenges such as inequality, sustainability and the future of work have in the past not been considered core to economics, but now need to be addressed head on. Economists need to change their ways of addressing these questions, and it starts with truly including groups that reflect the full spectrum of lived experiences and empowering them to contribute and shape narratives and modes of thinking that resonate with reality. In connecting our members from across the world with ideas, peers, and mentors as well as partner organizations, we put an emphasis of inclusion on all our initiatives. In this way our members not only help themselves, but others around them. It’s that simple.

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