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Postcard From Sweden

I’m currently in Sweden, spending a couple of weeks at Stockholm University’s Institute for International Economic Studies. It is really a remarkable place.

“The Institute” was founded under the directorship of Nobellist Gunnar Myrdal, it thrived under the great Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck, and is now guided by Torsten Persson, a giant in political economy.

By any measure, that’s quite a heritage.

And it has been an important incubator of the Swedish economic tradition. The contours of Swedish economics largely follow those of the domestic economy, yielding important contributions to the study of the welfare state, international economics, and political economy. More recently, there has been a lot of research activity around gender and families (the focus of this year’s IFN annual conference held last week).

There is also a fairly typical life cycle followed by many of the best Swedish economists: one’s early years are devoted entirely to scientific writing, establishing an international reputation. With this reputation comes some responsibility for leadership within the economics profession.

The truly Swedish part of the life cycle comes next, with substantial involvement in government policymaking the norm here, rather than the exception. And this is a norm that seems to me to be well worth copying.

The rhythm of one’s workday here is also quite unique. Anytime after 11:30 a.m., someone will ring a large bell that sits at the entrance of the Institute. And when the bell tolls, the economists all head for lunch together; if the bell hasn’t been rung by early afternoon, one of the staff — concerned for the health of the economists — will ring it to make sure we actually eat. And of course, lunchtime conversations are all about economics.

Around 3 p.m. the bell once again flushes everyone from their offices, we fuel up with espresso, and faculty and graduate students drape themselves on a series of lounges, ready for the afternoon seminar.

But don’t let this informality fool you: the real grilling begins immediately, and the invited guest is typically the main course. Think of the Chicago tradition, but in a couch, and with a Nordic accent.

And when the workday is over, Betsey and I have been exploring Stockholm at night. It is small enough to be walkable, safe enough to stay out until late, and now that it is summer, we can enjoy a beer in the sun until around 10 p.m.

Returning home, we realize that the same routine begins again tomorrow. It’s the sort of existence that reminds you to be grateful for this wonderful life we get to lead as professional economists, visiting some of the most beautiful places in the world, and meeting some of the most fascinating people.