Ten years ago, ultra-mathematical theorists were the kings of the economics profession. Now they seem to be nigh irrelevant. Clever and relatively open-minded empiricists rule the roost. Cementing the trend, few of the students coming out of top programs are math theorist types.

How did this transformation happen? Once the math theory people were on top, why would they hire and promote researchers so different from themselves? In short, why did they commit what seems tantamount to memetic suicide?

A few possibilities:

1. People want to hire people who won’t be their direct competition, so cycling is to be expected.

This seems fishy. Junior faculty who work in your area are more likely to be valuable co-authors than scary rivals.

2. Math theory was a mature literature, with little room left for original research.

Maybe. But this is mostly just an outsiders’ impression. To insiders, a seemingly stagnant field can still look like it’s full of interesting questions.

3. Senior faculty value quality more than conformity. So if the new talent doesn’t want to do math theory, they get hired anyway.

Also possible. But why would grad students enter fields dominated by work they aren’t interested in? I certainly didn’t expect things to change as much as they have – if at all – when I started my Ph.D.

4. Differential shirking. Theorists in each department would have been better off if they tightly controlled their hiring committees. But they chose the individually-optimal strategy of letting someone else serve on the committee.

Sounds promising, but why would theorists be unusually egregious shirkers?

5. Outside influence. Non-economists (administrators? donors? bloggers?) thought math econ was boring and/or stupid, and were somehow able to influence the hiring process in their preferred direction.

Problem: This goes contrary to all first-hand observation of how departmental politics works. Outsiders barely remember that economics departments even exist. They certainly aren’t paying attention to the mix of specialties gettng hiring.

Do any of these stories work? Anyone got a better explanation?