Home > The Economics Profession > The rise and fall of debate in economics

The rise and fall of debate in economics


New data illustrate the extent to which economists have stopped discussing each other’s work.

Once upon a time, economists regularly used to publicly criticise each other’s work in academic journals. But not any more.

In Figure 1 I have illustrated the degree to which economists have stopped debating. The data have been culled from Jstor, the online database of academic journals. To estimate the number of debating articles for each year, I searched for articles with “comment”, “reply”, and/or “rejoinder” in their titles, as these are the key words used to indicate a comment on someone else’s article and a reply to that comment. I did the search for the five most prestigious economics journals. I then used the total number of articles in those five journals in each year as the denominator.

Economics debate

Figure 1 shows how there was a dramatic increase in the level of debate in economics from the 1920s through the 1960s. Then, however, there was an equally dramatic fall. At the peak level, in 1968, fully 22 per cent of the articles published in these journals appear to have been related to debate. By 2013, however, just 2 per cent were.

Why did this rise and fall happen? Read more here

  1. paul davidson
    December 9, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    I can illustrate this lack of interest in debate

    . I recently wrote an article entitled “Money and Money Contracts” which quoted Arrow and Hahn in their book GENERAL COMPETITIVE ANALYSIS where they wrote that ” the terms in which contracts are made matter. If money is the good in terms of which contracts are made then the price of goods in terms of money are of special significance….If a serious monetary theory comes to be written, the fact that contracts are made in terms of money will be of considerable importance”.

    The essence of my paper was hat the sanctity of the money contract was essential to understanding the operation of a capitalist economy — and that Keynes’s liquidity preference as developed by Post Keynesians made this the basis of their “serious monetary theory”..

    I sent this paper into the JPE (university of Chicago) explaining the difference between Keynes’s “serious monetary theory” and the Chicago monetarist theory where the latter requires the neutral money axiom [as I showed with a quote from Milton Friedman] — and even showed how Milton Friedman had reintroduced Say’s Law into his Permanent Income theory by redefining “savings” as the purchase of durable producible goods out of current income!! According to Friedman savings would never be held in the form of liquid assets.

    I had hoped this would create a possibility of a debate between myself and the Chicago monetarists. My manuscript was almost immediately rejected by indicating that one of the editors of the JPE did not think the article would be of interest to the readers of the JPE even thought he did not indicate there was anything wrong with the analysis presented.

    I then sent it to the JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES hoping they would publish it with some response of those with different perspectives on monetary theory. Tim Tyler rejected the article again stating that the editors of this Journal discussed by a conference call my paper and they did not thinking it would not stimulate any economic discussion of perspectives on what would be a serious monetary theory

    So as the mainstream thinks they have all the answers , how do you expect any debate?

    Paul Davidson

  2. paul davidson
    December 9, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    I should have added to my previous comment that in the 1960’s an article I wrote was included in the JPE criticizing Milton Friedman. My article along with Friedman, Patinkin, Tobin, and Meltzer and Brunner articles in the same issue of the JPE was then published as a book entitled MILTON FRIEDMAN;S MONETARY FRAMEWORK: A DEBATE WITH HIS CRITICS — the book is still in print!

  3. December 9, 2014 at 9:54 pm

    I think people have the idea that scientific progress is achieved using the ethic of ‘if you pat my back, i’ll pat you’re back’. Rather than comment on someone else’s article, or debating a theory, its better to just publish your own. People start whole journals based on this principle. (Even in linguistics, which got split over Chomsky’s ‘innate grammar ‘ theory, the soltuion became ‘split the AAAS meeting into two, give MIT, Gtn, U Md, UC to chomsky, and give CMU, UCSD, and places in the UK to the dissidents, who then create their own journals’. Ignorance is bliss, so long as you know your own theology well. A fair number of academics I’ve met have no idea what the person in the next office studies or thinks, and dont care either.

    One thing that is funny though it may be well known is there are quotes by M Friedman, Coase, Leontif, and others all saying ‘modern economics is bs because its turned into a form of mathematical theology’. (Similarily, you can find quotes by b f skinner (empiricist) and chomsky (ratioanlist-descartes-platonist) which if put side by side, noone would be able to tell who said which, since they say the same thing. ) I happen to have no problem with arrow-hahn (though its an ‘ideal gas’ or ‘friction free’ and hence just a mathematical excercize—and money can just be another commodity to fill it out , along with government and institutions, banks, corporations, etc. —if you dont want to deal with a pure barter economy, Its timeless too, in both senses of the term. (Einstein didn’t believe in time either; more recently Julian Barbour wrote ‘the end of time’ or something, though Lee Smolin (perimeter institute) has rejected his previous atheism, and found faith again in the ‘rediscovery of time’).

  4. BC
    December 10, 2014 at 1:25 am

    Paul, well said. Allow me to add some context.

    Since 2009-10, the hyper-financialization of the US economy, coincident with an unprecedented level of debt to wages, profits, and gov’t receipts, has resulted in a situation in which cumulative imputed compounding interest to total credit market debt outstanding at average term now equals, or exceeds, all implied incremental output of the US economy in perpetuity.

    That is to say, total annual net flows to the exractive financial sector equals or exceed total output of the US economy forever.

    Said yet another way, all output of the US economy is pledged to the parasitic rentier caste and the supporting financial sector for as long as it matters.

    The central banks encouraging and reinforcing financial bubbles at or near record valuations to GDP in the interest of their TBTF/TBTE bankster owners only ensures that labor’s share of GDP remains at record lows, wealth and income inequality worsens, money velocity decelerates, current and future growth of real economic activity decelerates or contracts, and the well-being of the bottom 90%+ declines per capita indefinitely hereafter.

    The world is consistently manifesting evidence of a slow-motion depression, whereas the vast majority of economists are paid to ignore it or are allowed to behave as though it is not happening, because they have no incentive to know, nor will anyone pay them to find out and say so.

    • December 11, 2014 at 10:15 am

      You said correctly, “The world is consistently manifesting evidence of a slow-motion depression, whereas the vast majority of economists are paid to ignore it or are allowed to behave as though it is not happening, because they have no incentive to know, nor will anyone pay them to find out and say so.”

      Has anyone noticed that since the global financial crisis, there has not been a single idea coming out INET, RWER, or WEA which makes one iota of difference in the behaviour of bankers or policy makers?

  5. Josh R
    December 10, 2014 at 5:53 am

    Can the decline in replies in formal journals perhaps be the result of the growing profile of public economist? Think about people like Krugman. People have more access to blogs, news papers and more mainstream mediums to disagree and they know they will get more attention there. Any thoughts?

  6. December 11, 2014 at 2:29 am

    I am inclined to agree with Josh R. The higher access to blogs, the greater informality and anonymity of the medium might inspire people to use these platforms to voice their discontent, rather than using formal journals.

    • Silwyson
      December 12, 2014 at 12:12 pm

      Nonsense. Internet and blog did not come in until after 1995, by then most of the decline has already occurred.

    • davetaylor1
      December 13, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      We are not all voicing discontent. Some of us are trying to share our thoughts on better ways forward. The difficulties with formal journals – even here in the WEA – is precisely that they are formal, and expect practitioners and first-hand thinkers to follow academic rules (including not teaching what cannot be blamed on someone else, since that leaves the buck with their editors). That way one is very lucky to see anything new.

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