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Economics reflects the interests of the rich world

March 10, 2011

The Economist reported a couple of weeks ago that academic economics journals are carrying more articles than ever by Europeans. In 1991 Americans accounted for two-thirds of journal articles, compared with just under a half in 2006. Over the same period the share penned by Europeans climbed to 38% from just under a quarter. The proportion published by Asians was 3.4% in 1991 and 7.7% in 2006, with the rest of the world stuck on 6%.

The Economist sees this as a ‘maturing of Europe’s economics stars’. But what is really striking is the almost total dominance of the economics profession by the developed world. A single country is responsible for half of all articles; include Europe, and you account for almost nine-tenths of publications.

Even more telling is the statistic that Americans write 76% of articles in the ‘top’ journals. Those from other countries are almost entirely squeezed out, apparently allowing them minimal impact at the forefront of the discipline. As has been pointed out in heterodox circles, what constitutes a top journal is open to question. The neoclassical economists who dominate American academia have selected themselves as the best, relegating those from other persuasions to the bottom of the list. So if you’re not into highly formalised model-making or cutting-edge econometrics, and you don’t buy into the unrealistic assumptions underlying homo economicus, you’re not considered a ‘top’ author.

An understanding that the top journals are dominated by a self-selecting cabal slightly calms worries about European and American dominance. It might be that other economists do have an impact — just outwith the foremost journals. But mutual appreciation societies can be quite powerful, and there’s little doubt that the likes of the American Economic Review and the Journal of Political Economy do wield influence on policy.

The obvious retort would be that good science knows no borders, that Europe and America have the best economics departments, so they produce the most widely-published economists. But there’s a certain circularity in that argument. American and European professors are in effect saying: “We decide what good economics is; we edit our own journals; and we only publish what we consider to be good economics.” Add to that the need to speak English, and you’ve got a great recipe for excluding the rest of the world.

Economics isn’t a natural science. It’s influenced by the background and predispositions of its practitioners. Far more of it is open to debate than is commonly believed. For instance 10 years ago it was ‘consensus’ that central banks should be independent. But a large body of opinion now thinks otherwise. Fiscal policy went out of fashion in the 1980s, and many economists portrayed Keynes as having been ‘superseded’ by Samuelson, a bit like Copernicus superseded Ptolemy. But now Keynes is back, as evidenced by the massive government interventions during the crisis and numerous academic and popular books and articles in support of Keynes.

As the world economic crisis has shown, the discipline is in a fractious state, with several schools of thought competing for recognition. Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel prize, has said that much of the last two decades of macroeconomics has been a waste of time. This kind of disagreement is probably a good thing, and it’s evidence that economics is an open-ended, debatable science, which shouldn’t be dominated by academics located in a few rich countries.

Why does it matter if economics is a mouthpiece for the rich world? Well, it matters because for several decades the rich have inflicted policies on the poor that don’t work, and most of these policies originate in the prominent journals. I’d hazard that most ordinary Africans care little about the minutiae of inflation measurement or some arcane bit of game theory. They want to know what will lift them out of destitution. Many policymakers and in newly-industrialised countries know that you can export your way out of poverty through government intervention, despite the free-market protestations of the mainstream journals. Much of economics is really just ideology, serving the interests of the privileged.

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