Originally I planned to include in my PhD thesis the following quote:
Learn all that stuff and then forget it.
At the time I thought it was Miles Davis who said that, but it might as well have been Charlie Parker (sorry Miles, Bird makes for a better blog post title). I’m not really into jazz: the quote tricked me into looking up some Miles Davis and Charlie Parker on Spotify but after a few songs I always decide to turn on Pelican instead. The closest to jazz that I listen to frequently is the Tom Waits. I absolutely love Tom Waits. Oh, and Ethiopians like Mulatu Astatke or Getatchew Mekuria, but only when I’m in the mood.
But this quote – wow, I could tattoo it on my forehead if I were into that kind of thing (don’t worry, I’m not). It defines how I view the theories I work with, as well as the musical traditions I play. I consider myself a mainstream economist, but I do have my question marks regarding the behavioral and ethical models applied in my field. I don’t think there is any meaningful way of measuring existence value, if it exists at all. I don’t believe economic valuation can capture moral or religious considerations. I appreciate the role that social norms, traditions, or downright stupidity can play in human behavior. But I also think that it is too easy to throw your hands in the air and declare the entire body of neoclassical economics as overly abstract nonsense, or worse, to refuse to learn microeconomics because economists did not predict the latest financial crisis.
The bottom line is that you can only criticize a theory if you fully understand it. By the same token, you can only renew a musical tradition if you master its techniques, its rhythms, its harmonies, and its social context. Miles and Bird could only invent and develop bebop because they understood what came before it. Likewise, if you want better economics, well, make sure that you first understand the orthodoxy.
On the other hand, there is also the “forget it” part. Don’t let the tradition hinder your creativity. Dare to break its rules, to explore its boundaries. Dare to question a theory’s hidden assumptions, don’t accept such excuses as “this is how we have always done it.” Know the rules, but don’t obey them.
The quote, by the way, never made it into my thesis. My professor thought it cynical, as if I recommended the reader to forget all I wrote. I didn’t agree, of course, but I also figured that if he interpreted the quote like that, so would many others. So I left it out. I still regret that decision.