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man and the economy: do we really need another economics journal?

I’m a big fan of Ronald Coase. If you work in the domain of organization theory, his 1937 piece — written when he was but a lad — is seminal. And Coase’s work also paved the way for subsequent contributions and Nobel prizes in institutional economics, for brilliant scholars like Oliver Williamson and the late Elinor Ostrom.

Coase (at 101!) has recently published several pieces challenging mainstream economics: a piece in the current issue of Harvard Business Review on “saving economics from the economists” and then a BusinessWeek article “urging economists to step away from the blackboard.”

In these articles Coase lays out quite a few charges – mainstream economics is too abstract, is overly focused on resource allocation and not production, doesn’t offer any  practical advice to entrepreneurs or managers, is not realistic, is not attuned to comparative issues, doesn’t pay attention to institutions, is too focused on self-interest, etc, etc.

“Mainstream” economics of course is fun and easy to bash.  But frankly, I think that the whole mainstream notion is a bit of a dead horse; has been for a while.  The amount of heterogeneity in economics in fact is quite large.  There are now large literatures (and dedicated journals) that specifically deal with many of the concerns that Coase has.  For example, economists have looked at factors such as fairness and inequity aversion (e.g., Fehr, Schmidt), comparative and institutional dynamics (e.g., Greif, North), work on human capital (e.g, Lazear), etc, etc.  And, there are of course many heterodox areas of economics, such as the Austrian School (folks at George Mason – and of course our evil O&M twinners) or evolutionary economics (Nelson and Winter), that depart from “standard’ assumptions.  And certainly there are many disciplines, closely allied with economics (economic sociology, anthropology, strategy, etc), that deal with some of the other concerns (realism, comparative factors, practical advice, etc).  For example, Williamson’s work (as discussed here) on organizational boundaries and production is now vigorously being carried forward by scholars working at business schools.

Sure, there might be a hard core of economists to which Coase’s critique could be applied.  And yes, there might be conferences and departments that you would get laughed out of if you brought up institutions, embeddedness or some such concept. But on the whole, I just don’t buy it.  I think the mainstream economics stereotype is old and tired.  Let it die.

And can’t we just say there is a certain division of labor, where some, with their preferred tools and methodologies, look at certain aspects of economic activity in one way, and others, with their preferred tools and methodologies, look at those same aspects in a different way.  Kum ba yah.   Think about it as different lenses on the phenomenon (though, I have to say that my Meyerian cookie-pushing self really hates that notion).

Or maybe this is a question of influence.  Should economists, for example, cite sociologists more (see Ezra’s piece related to this)?  Perhaps.

Well, it appears that the solution for the problems is an effort by Coase and a colleague to start a new journal, Man and the Economy.  Sounds interesting.  However, given the mega-mass of economics journals out there, I don’t see how another journals solves anything.  This web site lists 318 different economics journals, and this paper ranks 178 economics journals.  (If you add disciplinary journals into the mix, we’re quickly into the thousands.)   There’s a little something for everyone amongst these journals (definitely of varied quality) – you want economics and sociology, it’s there.  Applied econ, it’s there.  Econ and philosophy, it’s there.  Econ and institutions, there.  Etc.

Bottom line, as much as I respect Coase, I don’t buy the “mainstream” notion given the heterogeneity in the field of economics.

Written by teppo

December 5, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Posted in uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. Good points, Teppo. I generally agree. One quibble, however, is that you don’t address Coase’s point on textbooks, in particular. My sense is that textbooks are still the main source of teaching undergraduate economics, and that econ textbooks are more guilty than the academic milieu that I think you are talking about.

    (I’d love to be shown to be wrong about this, since I don’t have much firsthand knowledge, but I haven’t had much luck finding good introductory econ teaching material that breaks from the old orthodoxy Coase is criticizing….)

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    Robert C.

    December 5, 2012 at 7:08 pm

  2. Also, I’m surprised the sexist-sounding journal title didn’t get changed before it was launched. (Or perhaps I’ve just been hanging out with too many politically correct humanities types? Are economists still resisting such sensibilities, or have they evolved beyond them? I’m genuinely surprised….)

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    Robert C.

    December 5, 2012 at 7:13 pm

  3. Agreed both on the tiresome mischaracterization of economic research and on the need for yet another econ journal. Now, if someone were talking about increasing the number of dedicated strategy journals from 1 to some number greater than 1, that would be exciting!

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    @mdryall

    December 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm

  4. Robert C: I had the same reaction — welcome to the 1950s. (And it isn’t “political correctness,” a pejorative in many circles, to call out sexist language.) Coase and co should know better, even if he is 101 years old.

    Then again, it is economics, a field that is not exactly known for its demographic diversity.

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    krippendorf

    December 5, 2012 at 8:37 pm

  5. Andrew Gelman infers that the title is supposed to be a joke (http://andrewgelman.com/2012/11/outta-control-political-incorrectness/).

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    Sam R.

    December 5, 2012 at 8:50 pm

  6. […] Orgtheory, Teppo Felin réagit aux récents articles de Ronald Coase critiquant l’état de la science économique. Je suis […]

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  7. What?! It doesn’t matter how many heterodox economists there are in the academy. Mainstream economics is the bedrock of US economic policy, with mainstream economists permeate the corridors of power: Ben Bernanke as Chair of the Fed, Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers as Chair of the National Economic Council, Greg Mankiw as previous Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

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    Matt Vidal

    January 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm

  8. […] I do not fault economists for this approach. There is value in aggregating data for unemployment numbers, or Gross Domestic Product. Economists, unlike most anthropologists, focus on large or macro-economic issues; and a simple way to aggregate data sets and reach broad conclusions is to “simplify” data and assumptions. By contrast, as the number of variables or nuances of the “data” multiplies, the objective of aggregating the research devolves into comparing “apples to oranges.” This problem often plagues anthropology and is certain to limit the comparability of research, per recent discussion about “man and the economy.” […]

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