In this podcast with Gary Becker, we talk about the economic approach to human behavior, Becker’s status as a maverick in the early part of his career, and the influence of Smith and Marshall on Becker.
Becker points out that the older, more established members of the profession treated his early work with disdain but that younger members of the profession found his work exciting.
We stopped there and moved on to another topic, but I wonder if economics is particularly susceptible to intellectual fads relative to other fields. Much of the most powerful ideas of economics are unchanged since Adam Smith. So there is always going to be a tendency for the younger members of the profession to look for ways to be distinctive and marketable. That makes new niches for publication particularly attractive.
I’m not suggesting that Becker’s work was attractive simply because it was novel. It was exciting. But the incentives for younger folk must have surely played a role in making it more appealing to them than to their elders.
Later in the podcast, Becker dismisses the idea that "everything had been figured out" and all the easy problems had already been solved. He’s surely right that there is plenty left to do in economics. But I wonder how the field is shaped because of the difference between the social sciences and the physical sciences. In the physical sciences, technology helps make measurement more accurate or possible where it was impossible before. Other than neuroeconomics, there isn’t much of a role for technology in making measurement more powerful or opening up new areas for research. If anything, cheap computing power has made empirical research less reliable (JSTOR subscription required) because it has made searching for a statistically significant result easier.