Low-Quality Publications and Academic Competition

In the last few days, the economics blogosphere (and twitterverse) has been discussing this paper in the Journal of Economic PsychologySimply put, the article argues that economists discount “bad journals” so that a researcher with ten articles in low-ranked and mid-ranked journals will be valued less than a researcher with two or three articles in highly-ranked journals.

Some economists, see notably Jared Rubin here, made insightful comments about this article. However, there is one comment by Trevon Logan that gives me a chance to make a point that I have been mulling over for some time. As I do not want to paraphrase Trevon, here is the part of his comment that interests me:

many of us (note: I assume he refers to economists) simply do not read and therefore outsource our scholarly opinions of others to editors and referees who are an extraordinarily homogeneous and biased bunch

There are two interrelated components to this comment. The first is that economists tend to avoid reading about minute details. The second is that economists tend to delegate this task to gatekeepers of knowledge. In this case, this would be the editors of top journals. Why do economists act as such? More precisely, what are the incentives to act as such? After, as Adam Smith once remarked, the professors at Edinburgh and Oxford were of equal skill but the former produced the best seminars in Europe because their incomes depended on registrations and tuition while the latter relied on long-established endowments. Same skills, different incentives, different outcomes.

My answer is as such: the competition that existed in the field of economics in the 1960s-1980s has disappeared.  In “those” days, the top universities such as Princeton, Harvard, MIT and Yale were a more or less homogeneous group in terms of their core economics. Lets call those the “incumbents”. They faced strong contests from the UCLA, Chicago, Virginia and Minnesota.  These challengers attacked the core principles of what was seen as the orthodoxy in antitrust (see the works of Harold Demsetz, Armen Alchian, Henry Manne), macroeconomics (Lucas Paradox, Islands model, New Classical Economics), political economy (see the works of James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Elinor Ostrom, Albert Breton, Charles Plott) and microeconomics (Ronald Coase). These challenges forced the discipline to incorporate many of the insights into the literature. The best example would be the New Keynesian synthesis formulated by Mankiw in response to the works of people like Ed Prescott and Robert Lucas. In those days, “top” economists had to respond to articles published in “lower-ranked” journals such as Economic Inquiry, Journal of Law and Economics and Public Choice (all of which have risen because they were bringing competition – consider that Ronald Coase published most of his great pieces in the JL&E).

In that game, economists were checking one another and imposing discipline upon each other. More importantly, to paraphrase Gordon Tullock in his Organization of Inquiry, their curiosity was subjected to social guidance generated from within the community:

He (the economist) is normally interested in the approval of his peers and and hence will usually consciously shape his research into a project which will pique other scientists’ curiosity as well as his own.

Is there such a game today? If in 1980 one could easily answer “Chicago” to the question of “which economics department challenges that Harvard in terms of research questions and answers”, things are not so clear today. As research needs to happen within a network where the marginal benefits may increase with size (up to a point), where are the competing networks in economics?

And there is my point, absent this competition (well, I should not say absent – it is more precise to speak of weaker competition) there is no incentive to read, to invest other fields for insights or to accept challenges. It is far more reasonable, in such a case, to divest oneself from the burden of academia and delegate the task to editors. This only reinforces the problem as the gatekeepers get to limit the chance of a viable network to emerge.

So, when Trevon bemoans (rightfully) the situation, I answer that maybe it is time that we consider how we are acting as such because the incentives have numbed our critical minds.

New issue of Econ Journal Watch is out!

For those of you who don’t already know, Warren is the math reader for EJW and one of NOL‘s co-founders, Fred Foldvary, is an editor for the journal, so this is very much a family affair. Here are some of the articles that caught my eye:

You get what you measure: Daniel Schwekendiek explains how South Korea followed a proven template of incentivizing exports to boost Web of Science publications and raise the rankings of its academic institutions.

Now entering a Republican-free zone: Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel Klein report on the voter registration of faculty at 40 leading U.S. universities in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology.

Whither science in gender sociology? Charlotta Stern investigates whether gender sociologists blinker themselves from scientific findings about sex differences.

How to Do Well by Doing Good! In this 1984 essay, Gordon Tullock counsels young economists that doing well and doing good go together.

You can download and read the whole thing here (pdf).

A Note on the Econometric Evaluation of Presidents

Sometimes, I feel that some authors simply evolve separately from all those who might be critical of their opinions. I feel that this hurts the discipline of economics since it is better to confront potentially discomforting opinions. And discomforting opinions are never found in intellectually homogeneous groups. However, a recent paper in the American Economic Review by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson suffers exactly from this issue.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the article is highly interesting and provides numerous factoids worth considering when debating economic policy and politics. Basically, the article considers the differences in economic performance under different presidents (and their party affiliation). Overall, it seems that Democrats have a slight edge – but in large part because of “luck” (roughly speaking).

However, no where in the list of references do we find an article to the public choice theory literature. And its not as if that field had nothing to say. There are tons of papers on policy decisions and the form of government. In the AER paper, this can be best seen when Blinder and Watson ask if it was Congress, instead of the president, that caused the differences in performance. That is a correct robustness check, but it is still a mis-specification. There is a strong literature on “divided government” in the field of public choice.

In the case of the United States, this would be presidents and congresses (or even different chambers of congress) of different party affiliation. Generally, government spending is found to grow much more slowly (even relative to GDP) when congress and the White House are held by different parties. Why not extend that conclusion to economic growth? I would not be surprised that lagged values of divided government (mixed partisanships in t minus one) would have a positive on non-lagged growth rates (growth in t-zero).

Now, this criticism is not sufficient to render uninteresting the Blinder-Watson paper. However, it shows that some points fall flat when two fields fail to link together. Public choice theory, in spite of the wide fame of James Buchanan (Nobel 1986), Gordon Tullock and affiliates (or off-spawns) like Elinor Ostrom (Nobel 2009), is still clearly unknown to some in the mainstream.

And that is a disappointment…

Slavery and the footnotes

I came across this old essay on slavery by economist Gordon Tullock (h/t Tyler Cowen) and what struck me (aside from an excellent presentation of the economics of slavery) was this footnote on the inevitable dissolution of Marxism (this paper was written in 1967):

It may be that the dissolution is not the first step toward the total elimination of this powerful religion, but merely a breaking away of the talmudic encrustation of the true scribes and pharisees of the Second and Third Internationals. Such a development is not uncommon in the history of other religions. My personal opinion is that the disintegration which we now see is more fundamental, however, and I doubt that Marxism will survive the century as a living faith.

In my own experience in the classrooms of powerful and plebeian universities alike, Marxism has indeed disintegrated into virtually nothing. Marxism has, rather, become a sort of an embarrassing older uncle that professors chuckle about in a manner that is more reminiscing than bitter. They all realize that Marxism led to very bad things, but they are unable to acknowledge that capitalism – Marxism’s Other – has brought about peace and prosperity for untold billions.

It would be wise for us, therefore, to continue to focus on this dead religion. Deep-seated beliefs are hard to let go of, even after these beliefs have been shown – theoretically and empirically – to lead to horrors of the worst kind. “Yes,” the embarrassed former adherents grudgingly admit, “communism has failed miserably, but socialism has not. It has not even been tried, and besides, it is capitalism that is responsible for the world’s ills today.”

This is not obstinance. This is deceit, plain and simple.

So how do we go about combating obvious deceit (rather than the sophisticated theories of 20th century Marxists)?

I think the answer is to just debunk their examples on a case by case basis, in as public as a forum as you can muster. Famines in east and central Africa, for example, have often been attributed to capitalism because of the policies of the World Bank and IMF. Libertarians ought to agree with most of this, and then simply point out that the World Bank and the IMF are central planning agencies designed, created, and supported by governments in the West. Once this fact -which is not quite as simple as it appears – is acknowledged, you can go from there and take a public choice route, an Austrian route, or even a populist libertarian route to explain why capitalism is not responsible for famines.

Wars, genocides, ethnic cleansing campaigns, etc., can all be explained (and eliminated) if libertarians focus on the role of the State in all of these ills rather than on the theoretical or empirical weaknesses of socialist explanations and proposals.