Every era defines for itself its most pressing economic problems. They emerge from a complex public dialogue, involving ideas and experience, theories and political pressures. Economists influence and take part in that dialogue but they certainly do not control it. Are we living through a new industrial revolution powered by ICT? Should we be grateful to big companies such as Microsoft and Nike for their new products or try to curtail their power? Does more material well-being always make people happier? Do poor countries gain from international trade and globalisation? Is continued economic growth environmentally sustainable? Assumptions about what is economically possible and desirable influence the answers that politicians and commentators as well as academics give to these questions. John Maynard Keynes, perhaps the twentieth century's most famous economist, wrote at the end of his best known book:
the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood [ … ] Practical men [and women – authors], who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.
(Keynes, 1936, p. 383)
The tone may be rather self-congratulatory and reflects the sexist attitudes of the time, but the point has as much force now as in the 1930s. Economic issues change but economic ideas continue to matter.
The variety of understandings of the new economy and of interpretations of its desirability illustrate how economic theory is as much a debate as the public dialogue to which it contributes. The presentation of theory as debate carries the most general message of this chapter, namely that economic theory is not a fixed body of knowledge but, like all social sciences, an arena of research and dispute. Economists, like other social scientists, develop differing and distinctive ways of thinking about the world, or broad conceptualisations within which they work. These different visions of the world are influenced by the issues which economists regard as important. In other words, how economists think depends in part on what they think about.
Hence, as economies and economic issues change, so does economics. We hope you will enjoy your exploration of this endlessly debatable subject.