Academic publishing and policy

Someone wrote of nice review of my Defending the History of Economic Thought. So I wrote him back:

I am sorry that it has taken me so much time to write to you about your review of my book. But it was so excellent and added so much to what I had written myself, that I didn’t wish to just dash something off but preferred till I had time to sit down and write a more complete response. And till now, time has been in short supply. Yesterday, I read the review through for the third time and found it even more remarkable than when I read it the first time.

I naturally am very happy to find a positive review, which is rare enough at any time. But what completely stopped me was not only that we were absolutely on the same side on these issues, but that you had added much more to what I had originally written. I did indeed learn a great deal from reading what you wrote.

The most important part was your explanation of why there has been such a comprehensive turn from HET. As soon as I read what you wrote about the nature of the academic world today, and how the aim is publication of worthless articles in even more worthless journals, I could see exactly what you meant. It, of course, surrounds me here as well, since the pressure is put on all of us to publish. The result then is that the focus is not on whether we are furthering some policy debate, but whether we have made a point sufficiently different from someone else that will convince two referees and an editor that the points made are worth going into print. Whether any of it has relevance as a means to understand how an economy works, or whether there are any valid policy implications, is typically so far from anyone’s mind that it may not matter at all. I have had a policy background for most of my career and it has struck me far too often when I go through the journals that pass my way that there seems few if any useful conclusions to draw from most of the articles published. Having read your review, I can now see more clearly what is going on, and also can see more clearly what an obstacle keeping HET within economics must be to those who think of HET as an opportunity to write about some vacuous issue distantly related to some economist of the past.

The role of positivism is one that I had not considered before and will take some time to look into. You put “organised ignorance” in quotation marks so I wasn’t sure whether you were just distancing yourself from the sentiment, or whether it is a well-known quote that I had not come across before. But whichever it was, I was more than comfortable with the point. I now think of economic theory as an actual menace to good economic policy. I don’t know how much you know of my other work, but mostly I find myself lamenting the disastrous sets of policies that flow from our macroeconomic theories, and what I think of as even worse, the almost complete absence of any serious re-thinking about how to conceptualise the world, or how to fashion policies that will actually cause an economy to grow and employ.

But really, the changing nature of academic economics as a means to publish something is so bizarre that if this is really the way it is, we have become the Mediaeval Schoolmen we still laugh at. There is almost nothing we cannot gather data on and run a regression through the numbers. Whether human knowledge is thereby advanced is another story. I have to say that what you have described is a singularly depressing set of circumstances, but I cannot truly see in what way you are obviously wrong. I must merely hope that in amongst all of these publications that flow into the world each year, there is still good economics going on, and that somehow the best will rise to the top and be noticed.

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