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Nobel laureates ponder the scientific mind and the art of optimism

, August 25, 2017, 0 Comments

nobel-laureates-meetings-davos-economics-marketexpress-inMore than 350 economists under 35 are gathered on Germany’s southernmost edge to listen to 17 Nobel laureates in economics. The Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings aren’t quite Davos, but close.

The Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting is a mentoring exercise, like a (week-long) consultation with (highly prominent, Nobel prize-winning) thesis advisors. And expertise, at least here, is still in high demand.

On the one hand, there’s no better time to be a scientist then at the present – one assumes an unprecedented level of technological progress, of constantly improving data, and the best tools that have ever been available.

But cross-border problems have reached an order of magnitude only further complicated by globalization and interdependent economies.

Europe’s North-South divide in Lindau

Consider Europe. It might be fitting that Nobel laureates and their heirs have descended upon a picturesque lakeside town, part of a historical trading route connecting southern Germany and Italy.

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Nobel Prize winners in economics gather in Lindau

As it happens, the continent’s much-discussed North-South dividing line falls around here, at least geographically speaking.

German reticence is the political hurdle blocking a more formally integrated fiscal union within the eurozone – harmonizing the management of public finance for rich and poor countries alike.

Not a few of the economic brains present here think this is the key to assuring the future of monetary policy magic. And it doesn’t take an economic brain to see why that’s a hard sell for the Germans.

“A leader like (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel is in a bind,” said Eric Maskin, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2007. “She wants to see Europe succeed, but she also wants to get re-elected.”

Inherited problems

But the question of the euro’s future might pale in comparison to the colossal challenges facing the next generation of scientific minds – like climate change, and mass migration, at a time when there’s growing mistrust of expertise, in the alarmingly pervasive context of post-factualism.

Essa Mussa, an Ethiopian economist attending the meeting, said that means the economists of his generation have to learn to be chameleons of social science, in a matter of speaking.

“Young economists have to see more colors, more global complexes that cannot be seen by others,” said Mussa. “They have to really cross the economics profession and bring in a broader understanding of those problems, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and history, to be able to understand global complexity.”

That’s a tall order. At the very least one will need to bring a lot of enthusiasm to the table.

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European Central Bank Chief Mario Draghi talks to young economists in Lindau, Germany

First diagnosis, then cure

“The advice I always give to young economists is to make sure that the questions you ask, the questions you pursue, are the ones you really want to know the answer to,” said Maskin.

One might not always like the answers, but there are few social sciences where that isn’t true. And knowing them has inherent value – turning those answers into advice isn’t what the current generation of young economists should be doing, says Myron Scholes, who bagged the prize in 1997.

“I think policy should be the last thing they should be worried about,” said Scholes. “They should be giving empirical support or theoretical support to whatever their views are. You might not effect change, but you might be able to explain something and a better explanation of something increases our ability to then understand, and that understanding is valuable in its own right.”

Knowing is half the battle – unfortunately the other half is less obvious. But getting some of the world’s best minds together is at least a start.