The Tragedy of Modern Academia
By David Henderson
Alternate title: Don Boudreaux explains my motivation in two paragraphs.
Academic journals are the place to hash out new ideas, to note exceptions to established ideas, and to see how well or how poorly different ideas explain different slices of reality. Academic journals are not the place to repeat long-ago-discovered truths. A bias, however, arises from this role of academic journals and of the need for scholars to publish in them – namely, a disproportionate amount of attention is given in academic journals to speculative ideas and to exceptions to long-ago-discovered truths. Foundational ideas and long-ago-discovered truths appear only in the background of academic journals, or whenever someone discovers (or believes that he has discovered) an exception to these.
For example, a young economist in 2018 receives no professional acclaim for restating the economic case for free trade; she does, however, get much attention for describing theoretically a weird set of circumstances under which that case is weak, or for claiming to find empirical evidence that calls that case into question. All such research is to be welcomed. But in addition to helping to give to the general public mistaken impressions about the strength and applicability of established ideas and long-ago-discovered truths, this publication ‘bias’ tends to select for economists who never really learn – and I mean really learn (as opposed merely to be able to restate in rather mechanical ways) – foundational economics and why long-established truths became justly established.
This is from Don Boudreaux, “Quotation of the Day, ” CafeHayek, February 12, 2018.
I figured this out pretty early in my career. And one of the people who helped me figure it out, although that was not necessarily his intent, was then UCLA labor economist Finis Welch. It was in the fall of 1974 and I was sitting in on his graduate labor economics class. He came to class one day and led off my asking us the average number of readers of an academic article. A student would toss out an answer in the three digits. Finis would say “Lower.” Then we got down to two digits. Finis would say “Lower.” Finally we got to one digit. The answer, he said, was 4.
I went home that evening depressed. “What kind of a business am I entering,” I asked myself, “where an average of 4 people will read my article?” Maybe I’ll be 3 times as good as the average, I thought. Whoopee. That makes 12. Oh, but maybe, indeed probably, the function is non-linear. Ok, I thought, so the number of readers might be 30. Big whoop.
Yet in my first two years of graduate school, I was learning important things regularly–from Armen Alchian, Harold Demsetz, Sam Peltzman, Ben Klein, and George Hilton, to name the main 5 I learned from. And they were things I was dying to share with people.
I did some quick math. At the time I think the Wall Street Journal had a circulation of about 1 million and an average of 2 readers per issue. That’s 2 million readers. I estimated that the number of readers of a given op/ed in the Journal was 10% of the total readers, or 200,000. Surely some of these, probably 500 or more, would be economists. So I would reach more economists by writing for the Wall Street Journal than I would ever be likely to reach in academic journals. And I would probably be writing more-important things.
My upset and depression turned to excitement within a few days. What to write about? Nixon’s price controls were causing lineups for gasoline and I wanted to write about that for local publications and even for the top publication–the Wall Street Journal. So that fall I wrote my first piece for the Journal. I still l remember the message. Newly inaugurated President Ford had not yet imposed his import entitlement program for oil [read Joseph P. Kalt’s excellent book on this if you want to understand this complex system] and so I could show, with simple reasoning, that getting rid of the price controls on crude oil would, by increasing domestic production, cause the market-clearing price of crude to fall. So the market-clearing price of gasoline would fall too. This didn’t mean that the market-clearing price would be lower than the current retail price of gasoline because price controls kept that price artificially low. But it did mean that the market-clearing price would be below what many people were estimating. I wrote it up and submitted it. The Journal rejected it. (I got multiple rejections from the Journal; my first hit was in April 1985, over 10 years later.) Incidentally, I wrote it up as a slightly more academic piece and sent it a few months later as part of my interview package to the people at VPI (now Virginia Tech.) When I went for my interview and had my one-on-one for half an hour with Jim Buchanan, he had read it and thought it was clever.
My path was set. Well, there was a big detour. On my first job, at the University of Rochester’s Graduate School of Management, I worked on pieces to submit to the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, and the Bell Journal of Economics. I got rejections from the first two and a request for a very minimal revise and resubmit from the Bell Journal. (I would say more about my bonehead non-response to the Bell Journal editor, but that’s still too painful to write about.)
But after I left the Council of Economic Advisers, by which time I had two pieces published in Fortune, my path was set. I would do enough academic articles to get tenure and do lots of articles for Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Reason, and other publications. It worked out well and, other than regretting my bonehead error mentioned above, I have never regretted my choice.
Sure enough, I think I was right about the number of economists who read my op/eds. I get emails from them occasionally and they end up sometimes using the op/eds in their classes. Also, when I got to conferences, I’ll run into government economists and academic economists who comment favorable on particular op/eds. So the number of economists readers is well above 4, well above 12, and almost certainly well above 30.
Postscript: It was my view of the importance of writing about the things economists have to tell the public that motivated my conceiving and editing The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, now The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Read my thoughts about that here.