Dogma & The Death Of Debate In Economics


Two recently released studies have highlighted very dangerous trends in mainstream economics that shield the profession from the kind of reflexive critical thinking that’s needed to keep it honest and relevant to the real world. The first, entitled “The Superiority of Economists” highlights the idiosyncratic arrogance that’s taken hold of the profession. Alan Harvey with IDEA Economics provides a synopsis:

[The] study finds that, compared to other social scientists, economists consider themselves elites, smarter than others, not needing to explore outside their discipline, worthy of being listened to first when it comes time to fix things; and this view may actually be accepted those other social scientists, who place themselves and their disciplines at the fringe looking in. Other findings suggest that a dominant view, or party line, is more widely shared within Economics than in other social sciences. It is enforced by a more strict hierarchy and by a narrower control group, associated with elite institutions. Prestige and compensation may ratify economists’ standing in the profession as much as competence or demonstrable results.

This narcissistic exceptionalism and dogmatic thought-policing not only serves cross-disciplinary connections to other social sciences but stifles debate within the profession itself. That’s the finding of the other recent study by Welsh researcher Joe Francis. Francis tracked the incidence of debate over a ninety-year period between scholars in the “big five” economic journals – two of which are American Economic Association publications. Using search terms such as “comment” “reply” or “rejoinder,” Francis found that the number of articles containing such terms declined dramatically since the 1960s – from over 20% in 1968 to just 2% in 2010. Unsurprisingly, Francis traces this decline to the marginalization Marxian and Keynesian thought by the mainstream during the neoclassical and neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1970s.

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

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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