"Over 60 years ago Paul Samuelson laid down “the foundations of economic
analysis” in his seminal work of that name. In the introduction, he describes
his dawning realisation of the underlying unity of the subject. As he laboured
in each field—consumer behaviour, public finance, international trade, business
cycles—he encountered similar problems, which yielded to the same set of
mathematical techniques. Mr Samuelson’s book squeezed a shapeless body of
economic knowledge into a tight corset.
In the decades since, the laces
have been unpicked. It is not just that economists are nosing into new fields of
social behaviour. They have been doing that at least since Gary Becker of the
University of Chicago wrote about crime and the family in the 1960s and 1970s.
But today’s economists show no great attachment to the rational model of
behaviour that guided Mr Becker. Economic theory has become so eclectic that
ingenious researchers can usually cook up a plausible model to explain whatever
empirical results they find interesting. Economics is now defined neither by its
subject matter nor by its method.
What, then, unites these eight young
stars and the discipline they may come to dominate? Economists still share a
taste for the Greek alphabet: they like to provide formal, algebraic accounts of
the behaviour they explain. And they pride themselves on the sophistication of
their investigative methods. They are usually better at teasing confessions out
of data than their rivals in other social sciences."
The Economist, "International Bright Young Things", 30 december 2008