David R. Henderson  

The Tragedy of Modern Academia

Beach Critiques The Case Ag... Please, don't experiment with ...

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.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Phil C. writes:


Nearly tragically, that perspective almost kept you from becoming a full Professor. Despite the magnitude of your influence on the field of economics, on policy-makers and practitioners, and on the general public, the narrow-mindedness of modern academia yet does not value those types of contributions.

Indeed, the academy does not value those who excel at teaching and prefers those who excel at esoteric research. You are a teacher at heart, both in the classroom and in your publications. And needless to say an excellent one at that. It was heartwarming to witness the institution of which you are emeritus faculty finally come to its senses and reward that.

When I was considering a switch from non-tenure-track to tenure-track after I earned my terminal degree you wisely explained the value of the non-teaching time so I could pursue my intellectual interests. But you (perhaps unwittingly) also modeled the importance of excellent teaching. An activity I enjoy more than my research.

Thank you for being an example of the proposition that taking the unconventional approach can sometimes be personally and professionally rewarding to a scholar because it is more beneficial to students and reaches broader audiences.

Reminds me of something Bastiat wrote. To paraphrase, he said we need far more popularizers of economics than researchers trying to come up with something new.

Joe munson writes:

I've always thought it might be interesting to somehow create a coffee table book that summarizes what the scientific consensus thinks about certain hot topic issues in a way lay people could understand.

You'd have a section for economists think about free trade, what social scientists think about police on black sentencing and or violence, that sorta thing.

Right now us lay folks are lucky if we hear about one study in the news, and we usually gravitate toward the one study that supports our current view, while remaining totally ignorant of whatever the current professional consensus is on key facts.

Antischiff writes:

Dr. Henderson,

Would this problem with econ journals exist if there weren't a shortage of data informing macro theory in general? Also, what about a possible over-reliance on partial equilibrium approaches?

David R Henderson writes:

@Phil C.,
Thanks much for those comments. And notice that I needed to publish one academic article per year for the previous 10 years in order to get promoted to full. I made peace with that by writing articles I was truly interested in that did not make it into anything close to top journals.
What was really nice, though, was that when my full professorship was celebrated at the ceremony, the list of accomplishments they read out, although they couldn't quite bring themselves to mentioning any of my books, did include mentions of the Wall Street Journal articles and a few other popular publications.
@Joe munson,
I've always thought it might be interesting to somehow create a coffee table book that summarizes what the scientific consensus thinks about certain hot topic issues in a way lay people could understand.
Great idea. I think it would be more than one book. Also, it would be a moving target. But that was my goal with the Encyclopedia.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

I'm not terribly familiar with the academic economic journal landscape (biochemist by training). Does anyone do citation analyses to judge the impact of published papers. I've been out of research a long time but there was a group in Philadelphia that pioneered this type of thing in the physical and life sciences. It was somewhat inexact in that several "methods" papers were always cited because they were used in the course of research so the ranking was always high. This was one way to get around the "four readers" issue.

David et. al.
George Mason University's economics department may be among the tiny number of departments teaching real economics. How fortunate David and I were to attend UCLA in its heyday. Once and a while I'll receive a missive from Bill Allen lamenting the fact that UCLA's economic department faculty knows a lot of math but little economics.
Walter E. Williams

Jon Murphy writes:

@Walter E. Williams

George Mason University's economics department may be among the tiny number of departments teaching real economics.

Amen to that! Your class, in particular, focuses heavily on the intuition of price theory, something which is rarely taught. I got a lot out of it, including a deep love of that clear UCLA-style thinking of Alchian, Demsetz, Hirshleifer, Allen, etc.

David Seltzer writes:

I was a graduate student at GSB, U of C 1970 to 1972. I took classes with Gene Fama, Merton Miller, Harry Roberts and Larry Fisher. I was RA to Yale Brozen and Fischer Black. In the flush of this burgeoning ferment in finance and economics, each of those iconoclastic luminaries not only taught, but asked penetrating questions not before asked. They posited hypotheses that earned Nobel awards. Today their work is the stuff of capital markets. I remember asking Fischer if stock price changes really followed a random walk. He smiled and said, "I have an open mind."

David R Henderson writes:

@Walter Williams,
George Mason University's economics department may be among the tiny number of departments teaching real economics. How fortunate David and I were to attend UCLA in its heyday.
I agree. We were lucky.
@Jon Murphy,
Your class, in particular, focuses heavily on the intuition of price theory, something which is rarely taught.
Actually, Jon, one thing I learned from Armen, not that I remember him ever saying it explicitly, was not to call understanding "intuition." It's understanding. As the late Fred McChesney put it, Armen showed that you can be completely rigorous using only words. When it's rigor, I don't call it intuition.
Your point is well taken, though.
@David Seltzer,
Thanks. I loved Yale Brozen, not just as an economist, but also as a person.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

What ever happened to someone like Reagan or Thatcher, who can combine charisma & political acumen, with an ability to explain the importance of the free market to the voters!

(BTW - I dropped out of a technical Ph.D. program when I also realized no one was reading the papers I was publishing. I started building commercial web sites that hundreds of thousands of people used...now I find myself working on projects that tens of millions of people see).

Jack pq writes:

I agree wholeheartedly but I also think it is possible to do both. One can publish both academic articles as well as wide audience articles. However I agree that academia only rewards the former not the latter.

Lastly I would add that with the internet and the ease of posting papers online, quite a few people can read your papers. I am a nobody economist and yet I have pretty big readership numbers. Definitely more than 4 per paper! More like 50 on average, which is still tiny of course.

LD Bottorff writes:

One of the things that made Milton Friedman so effective was that he addressed economic issues to the general population. I think that was why he was so effective in making the case against the military draft.
Keep writing to those of us who aren't economists. Perhaps some day, you will be able to persuade a powerful politician to make a meaningful change in policy.

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