The rise and fall of debate in the leading economics journals


The full article is here, by Joe Francis, cited on Twitter by Justin Wolfers.


While comparing two integrated time series always merits caution, one might mistake that graph for a plot of US crimes rates. (That being said, comparing integrated time series always merits caution). Of course I'm pretty sure the population of economists and muggers form nearly disjoint sets. But maybe it has to do with an underlying societal level tolerance for conflict: be it violent or intellectual.

*Typo* I repeated a sentence. I'm not worried though because this is 2014, and y'all are too wimpy to call me out for it.

Careful, even the grammar police have SWAT teams these days.

Classic boom-bust Elliott Wave. The third major up wave was an obvious sell signal.

Nice to see this matter receive attention once again.

At Econ Journal Watch in 2005, Phil Coelho, James McClure, and Frederick De Worken-Eley showed the trend:

An exchange explored why the decline in critical commentary:

Also, we published a study showing the decline in the Australian econ journals:

The post speculates that the Great Depression and Marxists ideas are what drove the huge jump in the graph. There is indeed a sharp increase in debates in the years right after the Great Depression, but why is there almost absolutely no change for the Great Recession? Is it because it is too recent? And for Marxist ideas, have they not been around for decades before the 1950-1980s times? Why were they so hotly debated then and not before? Would the red scare even allow Marxist opinions to be taken seriously? Sorry if I'm a little clueless because it was before my time, but with today's ease of communications on the internet and the databases, there would be even more debate than ever before. Why haven't the arguments scaled with technology as it improved and became more convenient?

That technology is exactly it I think. As conferences, working papers, and now the internet have become the normal mode of debate and criticism journals have become less important as a place where debate occurs. Now journals represent the achievement of a great paper, as opposed to a place to start. Krugman had a piece about this a while ago.

I'm guessing the composition has shifted, too, as new sub specialties don't create the same type of debate.

That spike in 1980 was the flurry of comments relating to monetarism. I just finished a 1982 paper on the gold standard by Cooper and from the Comments to the paper I discovered Scott Sumner was not the first to advocate targeting NGDP, it was a gentleman named Lloyd W. Mints, who was a teacher to Milt Friedman!
Robert E. Hall comments on Cooper’s paper: With respect to the goal of price stability, Cooper points out that discretionary policy in a fiduciary monetary system is perfectly capable of stabilizing prices. ... A long propaganda siege from the monetarists has convinced the Federal Reserve to look only at the money stock. An equal amount of browbeating from economists believ- ing in price targets for monetary policy might swing the Federal Reserve to that form of single-mindedness. There is nothing new about the idea- it was pushed hard by Lloyd Mints in the 1930s. (Lloyd W. Mints anticipated targeting NGDP, shown here in a video where he is 100 years old!)

Increased polarization has decreased debate. That may sound counter-intuitive, but each side has become hermetically sealed. It's even evident in this blog ("your an idiot" has become the standard response to a debatable point). I read this blog because of Cowen's reading list, which covers the spectrum. Not that Cowen is likely to change his mind about anything, but at least he is willing to present the other side. I've made the point that academic inquiry is polarized by the questions asked, the topics researched. What's to debate?

Yep, no debate on blogs

I agree with this. My impression is that conservatives stopped listening to liberals about 10 years ago and liberals stopped listening to conservatives 3-5 years ago. So you've got liberals who go about talking as though public choice economics doesn't exist and conservatives who systematically ignore imperfections in markets to protect their actual policy view, that markets can never function more poorly on their own than with government involvement, from critical analysis. And yes, I'm not sure TC is open to changing his own view, but at least he is engaging a broad spectrum of arguments.

Cowen doesn't know enough economics to present one side, let alone two.

1. Could comments be declining because editors pick non-controversial articles

2. Could comments be declining because of high transaction costs in writing comments for publication versus sending your comments out on the internet to various economic fora.

3. Could comments decline in a journal because there are more journals where you could submit an article (rather than a comment) about an article in another journal.

Two points: 1. a commenting exchange back and forth is a pain in the ass to handle - and and editor can give this stuff only so much time. 2. The decline period was an explosion period of new journals and the lower-ranked ones can handle such issues - with a paper exchange if it is warranted - and the lower journals get top authors.

As a matter of fact, nobody actually reads the leading economic journals. They are for publishing, not for reading.

I have found this lack of engagement very discouraging. Many times you see an economist disparaging another making claims like "he clearly thinks the government should control everything" or "he believes government has no role in anything" when you know that if there was direct engagement I think you would find more agreement than disagreement. You end up wishing they would talk directly rather than taking shots at each other in print.


I applaud EconJournal Watch's efforts to host a forum for discussion and debate. For better or worse, there has been a trend in many journals simply not to publish comments (or book reviews, for that matter) due to pressure to publish full articles, given page constraints. My one defense of this is to note that often would-be comments focus on some relatively minor point,often technical. I would say that often full articles are written in response to other full articles and my do a better job of debating than a small comment on some technical point does. In that regard, counting papers with the words mentioned in the post certainly undercounts the amount of debate going on in the journals.

As for the journal I now edit, the Review of Behavioral Economics (ROBE), I am continuing a practice I did at JEBO, which is done at few other economics journals, namely to have special target issues in which a main (usually long) target article is written by a prominent econmomist on a controversial topic, then accompanied by a set of comments by several people on it, with a rejoinder by the original author following them. I would certainly encourage other journal editors to pursue such special issues, which I find are both more interesting and also tend to generate a lot more citations than the usual special issues coming out of some conference, many of which, frankly, tend to include mediocre papers due to the organizers editing the issue with a lot of quid pro quo refereeing by the conference participants..

Yeah, but that's because they have better avenues of debate. Why submit a "rejoinder" to a journal if you know the author will only see it in a month's time? Just email them, or write a blog post. You'll get a response within a day.

Myopic blog commenters think, for some reason, that blogs are the reason for this decline. The real reason is online working papers--no need to go through the hassle of publishing to get people to see your criticism when a well-placed working paper will do. See, for example, Rothstein on Chetty et al.:

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