Friday, February 25, 2011

The canon of economics

February 24, 2011

One hundred years ago, in March 1911, the American Economic Review (AER) published its first article—on irrigation in the “sun-blistered” deserts of the western United States. The article described how the “fervid suns of May and June” melted “vast beds of snow and ice”, so that “springs and torrents rush down to the lowlands” and “the rivers overflow their banks”.

It is fair to say that the journal’s prose style has rushed downhill since those first lyrical pages. But if the AER’s opening article ranks among the best-written in the review’s history, it does not rank among the best. To mark its centenary issue, the journal asked six eminent economists to trawl through the thousands of papers that followed and pick the top 20. The results, with links to all 20 papers, are available online.*

The links are worth clicking on. Many of these papers are more cited than read. They are known not by their full titles, but by the author-and-date shorthand (Modigliani and Miller, 1958; Friedman, 1968; Diamond and Mirrlees, 1971) used in references. Reading them in the original yields some pleasing rediscoveries.

Unsurprisingly, the list includes the 1955 paper by Simon Kuznets explaining why inequality might first rise then fall in the course of economic development. Surprisingly, nowhere in the paper did he actually draw the “Kuznets curve” that is now inseparable from his name. (He described the arc of inequality as a “long swing” instead.) Robert Mundell’s 1961 theory of “optimum currency areas”, which lays out the conditions for a workable currency union, is now often cited by the euro’s critics. Ironic, therefore, to note that Mr Mundell wrote the paper to show why flexible exchange rates were impractical because many nations are not optimal currency areas either. Should every local “pocket of unemployment” have a “separate currency”, he snorted.

With one or two exceptions, the chosen papers convey an impression of economics as a tidy, coherent discipline. The subjects covered are traditional: consumption, tax, currencies, inflation, that sort of thing. There are no excursions into sumo or intestinal worms. The furthest off-piste they go is Anne Krueger’s 1974 article on rent-seeking, explaining why people may lobby for governments to distort the economy.


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