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Interview with Yuan Yang on Rethinking Economics and WEA’s Young Economists Network (YEN)

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Yuan studied Philosophy and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford, and then an MSc. in Economics at the LSE. She has worked as a community organiser and feminist campaigner. She is now studying at Beijing University.

She recently discussed her activities for young economists with Stuart Birks.

1. How long has the Young Economists Network been established?

It started early this year. I am interested in a pluralistic approach to economics: the philosophy of economics, economic sociology, and ways of doing economics outside the neoclassical mainstream. These are topics that were not part of the curriculum of my Masters in Economics at the London School of Economics (LSE). That’s why I wanted to set up a network of young economists interested in these areas, starting from the LSE base. With the help of many friends, we launched a community called Rethinking Economics (www.rethinkecon.co.uk), with a big conference across Birkbeck and the LSE. We are all economists in the broad sense, i.e. thinking about economic questions and questioning features of the economy, but not all of us a are academics or affiliated to a university.

I was overwhelmed by how easy it was to meet more like-minded people once I had got started, and how much support we received from academics of different stripes. In particular, the new economics foundation’s New Economy Organisers’ Network (neweconomics.org) was a great social hub of interesting economic thinkers. NEF gave us a lot of strategic guidance. I contacted John Latsis, my old Philosophy of Social Science tutor at Oxford University, and he put me in touch with Edward Fullbrook. Edward and I first talked about setting up a WEA Young Economists’ network in April. We first started getting a group together on Facebook, which has been growing very rapidly since then.

2. How far is this a London-based initiative?

When I first started, I didn’t know who would be interested in the Rethinking Economics conference. In the end, a lot came from Western Europe and some with roots in Brazil or further across the world. They were in London at the time, but we wanted to establish a broader network that could keep in contact afterwards. The most active groups are in London right now, where there are reading groups and a network of finance professionals who are rethinking finance in the context of their jobs. Thomas Vass at the New School  in New York setting up a chapter there. He wants to bring together different universities in New York for a spring conference as well, which is exciting because there are lots of interesting differences and similarities in the way the philosophy of economics is seen in the US and the UK.

3. You are talking about Rethinking Economics and about the Young Economists Network. How do they fit together, or are they quite distinct?

There’s a lot of overlap in that people are involved in both, but the groups focus on different things. The WEA Young Economists Network is more academically focused. Its aim is to connect students interested in heterodox economics who are doing in postgraduate degrees, so that they can publish and collaborate on academic work outside the mainstream.

The Rethinking Economics group is broader in focus: it is much more about getting people together who are not economists in the usual use of the term, who want to discuss and collaborate in settings that may not lead to academic publication. Those involved in Rethinking Economics are more concerned about addressing real world economic issues, broader questions of economic justice and reforming the real economy, and the economic narrative that is often displayed in the media and public policy. Rethinking Economics was set up more around the community organising spirit, so the idea is that you join and you are told who your local Rethinking Economics members are, and you might form a local discussion group, or go to events together. In the same general arena there is also the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) and their Young Scholars Initiative.

But all of these groups are quite young, so we are still thinking about how the different groups can best work together. One important factor is the institutional differences between the groups, because INET is quite a different organisation from the WEA. It will be  interesting to see the way they evolve.

4. So is Rethinking Economics linked to the WEA?

Throughout the conference and the post-conference proceedings we have had lots of interaction with the WEA. Grazia [Ietto-Gillies] wrote to us asking if we wanted to organise an online conference along the lines of the conference that the WEA had about reforming the economics curriculum. This one would be from the point of view of economics students. So even though Rethinking Economics has a slightly different focus from the WEA, there is still close cooperation.

In any movement that tries to transform something as large and monolithic as economics, it is important to have lots of different fronts and lots of different approaches. I think two of the great things about the WEA that Rethinking Economics can benefit from are their ability to bring together very many different strands of economics across the world and the innovative peer review system used in their publications.

5. Do the groups have a global reach, or are they mainly UK or Europe?

Right now about 70% of people taking part in Rethinking Economics are in the UK and the rest of them are spread out over Europe and the US, with a few in South America. The Young Economists Network is a small group setting up a journal and having academic debates on social media.

I think around the world right now there are young students and other thinkers who want to engage with non-neoclassical economics. These networks are just getting established, so people are just putting themselves in different settings to see who they might meet and who they might talk to, not necessarily with any specific affiliation. They are just trying to get in touch with as many people as they can.

6. How does this fit within the WEA?

Many young people who joined Rethinking Economics did so because they studied economics in a time of a global crisis which is not really addressed in textbooks. They see a big real-world disconnect between their studies and what’s going on around the world and reported in the news. They are demanding answers from their tutors and they’re not getting them because modern macroeconomics does not address many of these macroeconomic issues.

A second group are professionals working in finance, in economic consultancies, or even in completely unrelated disciplines that don’t require economics. For them, another disconnect is between the way in which academic economists talk about the possible solutions to the crisis, and their own reaction to the justice, equity or otherwise of those suggestions. The language of debates on the economy makes it very hard for non-economist to engage the political debate.

So there are students trying to understand the disconnect between what they study and reality, and others who study the disconnect between the language of the political debate and the language that they’d rather see. Both groups want to see changes in the way economics is done, which fits in well with the WEA’s aims.

7. One aspect at the academic level is the way economic history, history of economic thought, institutional economics, some of those dimensions, have been downplayed by the mainstream. Do your members want to see movement in that direction, or is it more bringing some of the social policy issues, geography and locational factors, cultural and political economy dimensions into economics, or something far bigger than that?

At the end of the conference we had a few workshops discussing what changes people wanted to see in economics. We formulated a set of aims from the conference, which are going to be regularly revised.

One important goal that we discussed is indeed to increase the diversity of disciplinary methods in economics, looking at economic history, sociology, and anthropology, for example. This may also help with a second goal, making economics more applicable to concrete problems. For instance, economic historians answer real-world questions, rather than burying their heads in the models. These are the main things, making economics more concrete and more diverse.

Another good outcome would be to change what people mean and think when that they say someone is an economist. Now an academic economist is thought to be someone trained in neoclassical economics, but there are many economists who aren’t technically trained as classical economists. They may be working the in the area, but they are using different approaches.

8. What activities do you have planned?

The Young Economists Network right now is focusing on starting a journal for young economists with an open peer-review system. This is the system that is used by the WEA journals: everyone can comment on journal articles online, using their real name. We want the journal to be an alternative to more established journals with blind peer-review and a publishing outlet for non-neoclassical economics. Right now we are thinking about how we can get people to submit papers.

Rethinking Economics is working on conferences that might expand its community reach, because every time there is a conference, more people start thinking about it and start getting involved. We have a group of community organisers to welcome new members and connect them up with others in their locality. We want to have both a geographical and an interest related structure for organising the membership. We believe that once you get in touch with similarly-minded people, you can develop your thoughts further and you start to believe there are alternative ways to do economics. If you are just listening to neoclassical economics day in and day out, then of course you are going to end up thinking like a neoclassical economist, but if you start talking to people with different ideas you might start to really question your basic position as well.

So the activities of Rethinking Economics are events such as conferences and getting people meeting in discussion groups. Once the community is more well-integrated, we hope to progress to writing and creating alternative educational resources for other economists and students. One idea was to produce a sort of anti-economics textbook, written by students for students, which could be used alongside the standard textbooks. Another idea was to engage with groups such as the Occupy Movement. Occupy London have an economics working group and have produced a Little Book of Ideas (online here), a pamphlet of economic terms explained in very plain English. We are currently talking with Occupy London about producing a bigger book of similar ideas, but that’s much more in its infancy.

9. And how is Rethinking Economics organised?

There is value in both face-to-face and online contact and organisation. Before I got involved in Rethinking Economics I was involved in community organising as a political approach to campaigning. It is based on getting people to meet, forming links and then forming political allegiances. If you want to work with somebody, then you really need to trust them and have shared interests with them. Meeting face-to-face is still really important. But there’s another tug. These networks are so global that it’s really important for people to have a way of organising that doesn’t neglect people who aren’t in the same country or continent.

The organisation of Rethinking Economics is done through meetings where people get together in central London, as well as online conferences. It’s important to do both. We could really do with people who are very good at the organising level, so people who are able and willing to do that would be most welcome.

Also, we are planning an online student conference on reforming the economics curriculum with WEA, which may well be a joint effort by Rethinking Economics and the Young Economists Network. If other people are interested in organising an online conference, it would be great if they could get in touch with me.

10. What sort of papers are you hoping to publish in the journal?

The idea is to have a younger person’s version of the WEA online peer review journals. So it would cover everything ranging from economic history to philosophy of economics, including comments on heterodox and neoclassical economics. It could be part of someone’s Ph.D., say a chapter of the thesis, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be people just wanting to dip their toe in the water, seeing what it’s like being exposed to open peer review. We intend the journal as a stepping stone for students, and we are also thinking of people who for a long time haven’t studied within an institution and are coming back to economics.

11. Why should people participate as reviewers in an open peer review process?

There are lots of students who haven’t heard these sorts of ideas discussed at all, and may well be excited by them and want to explore them. We hope that the open peer review system will develop into a culture where people feel able to constructively criticise people’s ideas. It will take some time for this kind of culture to develop and for it to become normal. But we need to start somewhere for constructive pluralistic debate to become mainstream.

Thanks very much Yuan, and good luck to you and your colleagues with your initiatives.

YEN initiative aims: https://www.facebook.com/groups/521797714546263/permalink/523426361050065/

Rethinking Economics aims: http://www.rethinkecon.co.uk/#!about/c1enr

Rethinking Economics on Linkedin: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Rethinking-Economics-5151910

From: pp.4-6 of World Economics Association Newsletter 3(5), October 2013 http://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/newsletters/Issue3-5.pdf

Download WEA newsletter Volume 3, Issue No. 5, October 2013 ›

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