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?

The rise in the debates began in the 1930s, presumably as economists suffered from pangs of Great Depression-inspired doubt. Keynes did most to increase the level of debate, while the strength of Marxist ideas must also have played an important part in encouraging a culture of cantankerousness. Paul M. Sweezy, North America’s leading Marxist economist, for instance, contributed to the debates in these journals (see Sweezy 1950a, 1950b, 1972).

The decline in debate then appears to have been associated with the emergence of a ‘neoliberal’ hegemony from the 1970s onwards. Keynesianism wilted, while Marxists were forced back into their niche publications. It is notable, for example, that Robert Pollin, arguably North America’s leading Marxist economist today, has only ever published one, six-page article in any of these journals (see Pollin 1985).

The rise, then, was associated with the challenges to the old liberal orthodoxy, while the decline has been accompanied by the establishment of a new liberal orthodoxy. That, at least, would be my rough sketch of what happened.

The question then becomes whether it mattered. In my opinion, a lack of debate would not matter if economists had successfully answered all the questions they are supposed to ask. Recent events, however, suggest that they may not have done.

References

Pollin, R., ‘Stability and Instability in the Debt-Income Relationship’, American Economic Review, 75:2, 1985, pp. 344-50.

Sweezy, P.M., ‘The Varga Controversy: Comment’, American Economic Review, 40:3, 1950a, pp. 405-06.

_________., ‘The Varga Controversy: A Reply to Professor Domar’, American Economic Review, 40:5, 1950b, pp. 898-99.

_________., ‘Comment’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 86:4, 1972, pp. 658-64.

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41 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Debate in Economics

  1. Johan Fourie

    One more suggestion: Comments or Replies attract far fewer citations than standard articles. With Leigh Gardner, I included a dummy for responses/comments/replies in a regression of citations in the top four Economic History journals.* We found that each response/comment/reply receives about 12 fewer citations, ceteris paribus. With increasingly limited page space in the top journals, it is understandable that editors prefer standard articles to responses. Whether this can explain the rapid decline since the 1970s, I’m not sure, but it is at least another plausible hypothesis.

    * http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/20780389.2014.922842

    Reply
    1. Joe Francis Post author

      It would be interesting to know whether editors disproportionately reject comments for publication.

      The incentives may also be there on the side of authors: they want ‘high impact’ articles that receive lots of citations, so they don’t bother writing comments on other people’s work.

      Reply
    2. Alexander Konnopka

      My theory: With increasing influence of economics on politicians came an increasing need of reliability of economic theory. In consequence, alternative thoughts were more and more supresed under what is called “mainstream economics”. I think that to bring economics forward, many aspects in economic theories and many economic theories in general should be completely rethought. However, since this would mean to officially admit that many recommendations made by economists to politicians and the public have been and are “crap”, alternative thinkings or debates are more or less supressed may it be just by some kind of indirect “mass behaviour”.

      Reply
  2. Ashok Desai

    Early in my career, I used to read a lot of economic literature, and often had views, mostly about the knowledge or the method. The comments I sent on articles were routinely, almost mechanically rejected. So I gave up. Now that we have a new product in blogs, I wish some would specialize in discussing and criticising ideas; that is the only way dross can be removed and solid ideas emerge.

    Reply
    1. Joe Francis Post author

      It’s a shame – comments, replies, and rejoinders are what I enjoy reading the most in academic journals.

      Reply
  3. Sandwichman

    Not surprising. A paper I submitted to one of the top journals, in response to unsupported assertions in an article published in that journal, was rejected outright by the editor, without being sent for review, on the grounds that they didn’t publish “debates.”

    Reply
  4. alan johnstone

    I would be interested in why you consider Robert Pollin to be
    ” arguably North America’s leading Marxist economist today..”

    Can you refer me specifically to his contribution to or his analysis of Marxist economics? From his CV on Wiki appears to be a leading proponent of Post -Keynesian economics and an advocate of reforms.

    Reply
    1. Joe Francis Post author

      Hence, ‘arguably’. I think the point would still hold if you took a more revolutionary, genuinely Marxist economist of Pollin’s age – i.e., you wouldn’t find him published in the big five economics journals.

      Reply
      1. alan johnstone

        I took the arguably to mean you feel he is not merely ‘a’ but ‘the’ leading Marxist economist.

        I would have imagined that Richard Wolff, David Harvey or Andrew Kliman have more valid a claim.

        Whether they are published regularly in the academic journals, i have no idea but they all address the most important audience….not their peers but the working class, something i think from a look at Pollin’s published papers, he fails to to do.

        Reply
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    1. Joe Francis Post author

      If I understand you correctly, both the number of economists and the number of papers they write have probably increased exponentially. But there are also a lot more journals now than there used to be.

      Reply
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  8. Robert Flood

    It is an enormous pain in one’s editorial ass to keep track of disputes. Also, if the point is worth making, it’s probably worth a short paper in a lesser journal, which shows up better on one’s cv.

    Reply
  9. Clem

    Meh. A lot of papers are replies to previous work and yet entitled comments or reply.
    Moreover, as pressure to publish ‘high impact’ papers has increased overtime, economists are increasingly incentivised to publish seemingly non-response papers that consists of a reply plus some other results and extensions.
    An interesting example is the ongoing debate on welfare gains of trade in new trade models.
    ‘New Trade Models, Same Old Gains?’ by Arkolis et al. 2012, a critical assessment of the welfare economics of new new trade models. Hence already a sort of comment not on a specific paper (although Meliz 2003 is clearly included) but to a strand of the literature.
    ‘Firm Heterogeneity and Aggregate Welfare’ by Melitz and Redding a reply to the paper above.
    ‘New Trade Models, Elusive Welfare Gains’ by Behrens et al. which is a new critical appraisal of welfare gains from trade in new new trade models.

    It is easy to find evidence of this kind of debates that are not captured by the term reply/comment.

    Reply
    1. Joe Francis Post author

      Yes, I agree: there would be a lot of debate that isn’t picked up by this methodology. It does, however, give a rough indication of the degree of cantankerousness among economists over time – an impression that can then be verified or refuted by looking in greater qualitative detail at the evolution of economic thought.

      As an example, probably the most important debate of the 1960s and ’70s was the ‘Cambridge controversies’, which revolved around whether capital could be considered a ‘factor of production’ – one of the key assumptions of neo-classical economics. Few of the main publications in this debate would be picked up by my metric, as they do not feature ‘comment’, ‘reply’, or ‘rejoinder’ in the title and/or were not published in the big five journals. Nonetheless, my metric does confirm that the 1960s were a highly cantankerous decade for economists, as reflected in the Cambridge controversies.

      By comparison, debates today are somewhat mild mannered and of minor significance, reflecting the low level of cantankerousness shown by my metric. Much of the debate you reference, for instance, seems like quibbling about how big the gains from trade are. Meh, indeed.

      Reply
  10. matteo

    Fine with this, although AER regularly publishes stuff from Sam Bowles, who has always been into the Marxist tradition. Bowles (1985) is of course the most explicit one, but one should also be able to look behind titles and read in between the lines. The big difference is that today *open* debate and *explicit* alternative theorizing has been kepf away from leading reviews. If you can cast your critique in the current jargon and principles, you can be published. Other will reply that this amounts to no less censorship. I would see this as an exaggeration, but I agree that it’s still a negative tendency.

    Reply
  11. matteo

    On reading between the lines: you don’t need a card carrying marxist to find issues traditionally faced by marxists discussed in a sympathetic way. If you look really hard, you may have some surprise. Although again, this is no refutation of your (agreeable) point – especially on the lack of open debate. Two examples:

    «[…] So a potential advantage of socialism here is that a socialist state’s monopoly of capital can facilitate honest communication, as bad managers cannot gain from imitating good managers if neither type gets any profits from entrepreneurial management (see Mathias Dewatripont and Maskin 1993). Thus, in our moral-hazard example, where the problem was to motivate hidden actions, we have found disadvantages of socialism; but in our adverse-selection version of the example, where the problem is to elicit honest reports of hidden information, we have found potential advantages of socialism. In comparison with free-market capitalism, socialism allows individuals to have fewer private property rights. Giving an individual ownership rights over property can help solve the moral-hazard problem of getting him to exert hidden efforts to manage the property well, but such individual ownership rights also give people different interests, which may make it harder for them to communicate honestly with each other, thus exacerbating the informational problems of adverse selection. Conversely, collectivism can often ameliorate adverse-selection problems while exacerbating moral-hazard problems.»

    Thus goes the end of a section in a paper by Roger Myerson, AER 2008 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/29730088). Second example:

    «[…]Overall, our analysis reveals that incorporating the self-interested objectives of politicians that control the redistributive tools of the society leads to a non-trivial comparison of markets and governments, potentially vindicating some of the arguments against Lange’s centralized resource allocation mechanisms»

    This, rather amazingly, is the way a mild centrist, utterly neoclassicl economist such as Daron Acemoglu, ends one of his 2008 paper on the Journal of Monetary Economics (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0262.2008.00849.x/abstract).

    My feelings are that pretty much every serious economist knows about these issues. Some of them think about them actively, even though nobody suspects anything. Concrete output is, however, kept to a minimum.

    Reply
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  13. Mike Isaacson

    I linked this post and offered some commentary on it over at the New School Economic Review. Hopefully, it will drive some traffic your way.

    Reply
  14. John Erskine

    The conclusions are powerful ones, and I don’t want to sound critical, but the method you’ve adopted (counting words in JSTOR) highlights the methodological poverty in much modern economics.

    I wouldn’t expect an independent researcher undertaking valuable work in a different field to look at methodological approaches across the social sciences and humanities, but others with tenure should be! The fact that no-one in economics is using the tools of discourse analysis, or another qualitative approaches, to examine the claims of mainstream economics is a cause of concern. Or doing fieldwork, or undertaking case studies and interviews, or any of the other tools the rest of us in the social sciences take for granted…

    Reply
    1. Joe Francis Post author

      Point taken, but this is a 500-word blog post! If someone were to give me a small pot of gold, I’d research it more thoroughly using some other methodologies, both quantitative and qualitative. That said, there’s quite a large literature on the history of economic thought that suggests that there has been a decline in debate among economists. This graph just verifies that finding quantitatively.

      Reply
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  18. o.k.

    Hello, I stumbled upon your blog and could not refrain from commenting…

    I think that you are a bit too hasty to condemn “neoliberal hegemony” as the only reason for the decline in comments. I work in the intersection of two disciplines (neither of which is economics), and the downward trend in the number of published comments is clear in these disciplines as well.

    I would guess that a big reason for this decline in number of comments to papers is that the output of scientific papers has increased a lot more than the number of articles published in top journals, so the editors are able to be more picky about what they publish. Further, there are a lot more forums for giving comments nowadays than there was in the seventies.

    PS. There is this internet-classic http://scienceblogs.com/catdynamics/wp-content/blogs.dir/382/files/2012/04/i-81ac180ea8bf28d4236839536fc7f035-How%20to%20Publish%20a%20Comment.pdf

    Reply
  19. o.k.

    Hello, I stumbled upon your blog and could not refrain from commenting…

    I think that you are a bit too hasty to condemn “neoliberal hegemony” as the only reason for the decline in comments. I work in the intersection of two disciplines (neither of which is economics), and the downward trend in the number of published comments is clear in these disciplines as well.

    I would guess that a big reason for this decline in number of comments to papers is that the output of scientific papers has increased a lot more than the number of articles published in top journals, so the editors are able to be more picky about what they publish. Further, there are a lot more forums for giving comments nowadays than there was in the seventies.

    PS. There is this also internet-classic http://scienceblogs.com/catdynamics/wp-content/blogs.dir/382/files/2012/04/i-81ac180ea8bf28d4236839536fc7f035-How%20to%20Publish%20a%20Comment.pdf

    Reply
    1. Joe Francis Post author

      Many thanks for this – that made me laugh a lot.

      And you might be right: possibly I put the cart before the horse; it might be that the fall in debate in economics journals has facilitated the emergence of a new orthodoxy among economists, rather than the other way around. My initial investigations suggest that the amount of debate articles published in other discipline’s journals has also fallen.

      Reply
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