I just returned from the annual American Economic Association meetings. For those who don't attend, this is our professional associations annual meetings -- it is a huge event in terms of the number of participants, the number of sessions, and the number of nervous job seekers. Most of the superstars in the profession are on full display, though many of the sessions consist of not yet established economists struggling to make their way in this competitive game of academic/scientific economics.
I attended the meetings religiously for the first decade or more of my career, then I sort of took a hiatus for the past decade only to attend if I was on the hiring side of job market, but now I am back trying to get sessions accepted, etc. I had one sessions accepted and one rejected for the 2014 meetings, and the session that I did chair actually had standing room only attendance -- for a session on Modern Methodologists of the Austrian School of Economics. So I am encouraged.
But I was encouraged by the meetings independent of that happy surprise for a simple reason. I often tell first year graduate students that the secret to success is to internalize the following truth about economics --- microeconomics is 1 true theory with an infinite number of applications; macroeconomics has no true theory, but an infinite number of opinions. The only time macroeconomics approximates truth is when the explanation of the macro phenomena is rendered in a form consistent with microeconomics.
And I saw some outstanding microeconomic theorizing on display by many of the most significant names in the economics profession. The elite of the profession were well represented at these meetings in the talks I saw by Daron Acemoglu, Caroline Hoxby, and especially Claudia Goldin. The more macroeconomic oriented talks by folks like Larry Summers, etc., were obviously impressive for the experience they bring to the table and 'wisdom' they may have learned in their years outside of academia in public policy, but I wouldn't say I had the same 'scientific' impression as when listening to Hoxby or Goldin. There is a science of economics, and there is an art of political economics. The elite in this profession are elite for a reason: they are smart, they are articulate, and they are experienced. You don't have to agree with them to be impressed by their skill and to realize how far short of the argumentative standard that they set that you find yourself. They are, in short, very impressive minds across the board. But the science is more analytically impressive than the art I would argue.
The old Roger Garrison line --- there may be macroeconomic problems but only microeconomic explanations and solutions -- continues to hold true even on the big stage at the AEA meetings in my opinion.
I did see a lot of what I would consider bad papers presented by the struggling up and coming -- focused as they are on 'data' and not the theoretical mechanism unlocking the empirical puzzle. So I wonder about what the AEA meetings might look like in 2025, but for now, the elite of my generation still worry about explicating the underlying microeconomics of phenomena, and in the right hands economic theory is a thing of beauty.
As I was writing this, I came across Dani Rodrik's piece for the Institute for Advanced Study Newsletter on the state of economics -- "Economics: Science, Craft, or Snake Oil?". Rodrik is actually quite positive about the discipline, but for slightly different reasons than myself. He feels we go astray as a discipline when we seek one-size fits all solutions. I agree with that with respect to the "art" of political economy, but not with respect to the science. Economic applications is indeed contextual, but the theory that enables us to understand the variety of manifestations that context produces is not context-dependent. Anyway, Rodrik's piece is typically smart and articulate and well-worth reading; he is after all one of the elite in our profession.
Bottom line: I left the AEA meetings encouraged and motivated. The science of economics is of course constantly evolving, but it is neither completely wrong headed nor corrupted as long as we keep the Garrisonian dictum in mind. It is in the "art" where things get more complicated and confusing, but also potentially more interesting if one makes a conscious effort to frame the art within the argumentative structure of the science. For all the talk about the necessary curriculum reform, the answer lies in returning to our scientific roots in choice within constaints, analysis of comparative institutional filters, and the dynamic mechanisms of coordination that result from combining the logic of choice with comparative institutional analysis.