The Strange History of Economics

Published on the Post-Autistic Economics Network, this article is not authored nor dated.

These days people like to call neoclassical economics “mainstream economics” because most universities offer nothing else. The name also backhandedly stigmatizes as oddball, flaky, deviant, disreputable, perhaps un-American those economists who venture beyond the narrow confines of the neoclassical axioms. To understand the powerful attraction of those axioms one must know a little about their origins. They are not what an outsider might think. Although today neoclassical economics cavorts with neoliberalism, it began as a honest intellectual and would-be scientific endeavour. Its patron saint was neither an ideologue nor a political philosopher nor even an economist, but Sir Isaac Newton. The founding fathers of neoclassical economics hoped to achieve, and their descendents living today believe they have, for the economic universe what Newton had achieved for the physical universe.

This brief article roughly traces the strange history of economics from the 1870s through to the beginning of Post-Autistic Economics movement in the summer of 2000.

Physics Envy: …

… The American Economic Review (AER), the Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE), and the Journal of Political Economy (JPE), have long been regarded as the world’s three most prestigious economics journals, the ones in which a publication adds the most value to an economist’s CV and most helps an economics department’s ranking and research funding.

A study has been made of the affiliation of the authors of full-length articles appearing in these journals from 1973 through 1978.5  For the QJE it found that the eight departments with the most articles were the seven favoured through RAND by the US Department of Defense plus MIT, and that this Big Eight accounted for 77.3 percent of the articles published. In the JPE  all of the RAND Seven were in the top ten and together with MIT accounted for 63.1 percent of the articles published. In the AER the top eight contributing departments were again the RAND Seven plus MIT, which together accounted for 59.3 percent of the articles published. Even within this Big Eight there was an astonishing concentration of success. In the QJE, which is controlled by Harvard, 33.3 percent of the articles were by Harvard-affiliated authors. In the JPE, controlled by Chicago, 20.7 percent of the articles were by Chicago-affiliated authors. In the AER, nearly half of whose editorial board during these years was from, in rank order, Chicago, MIT and Harvard, 14.0, 10.7 and 7.1 percent of the articles were by authors from these departments respectively.  About 70% of the board members were from the Big Eight and nearly 60 percent of the members of the nominating committees for officers.

Is it any wonder that the departments are “distinguished”? Thus the “best” departments are those who publish in their own journals, which are “best” since they publish the “best” departments. This academic incest would be considered genetically unsound if it involved biological reproduction.”6

A glance through the 2003 edition of Penguin’s Dictionary of Economics illustrates the accentuated continuation of this tiny all-powerful closed shop. The dictionary has entries for 29 living economists. Of these, 26, 89.7 percent, are from the US or have had all or the most important part of their careers there. Think about that: 26 for one country and 3 for the rest of world. And that is in a British publication by a team of three British authors. And what are the affiliations of the 26 US economists? 100% of them have either taught at or received their PhD from one of the Big Eight. (full long text).

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