Monday, May 4, 2020

Journal of Economic Theory: Fifty Years, Fifty Articles

The Journal of Economic Theory is commemorating 50 years of publication with a special issue that includes 50 of the most prominent papers the journal has published, all of which appear to be open access. As seems appropriate for such lists, only one of the included papers is from the last decade. Instead, these JET papers were a key inflection point for ideas that, guided by the structure and insights from these papers, then developed a substantial follow-up literature of their own. The well-educated economist will already be somewhat familiar with the core findings of many of these papers, so this issue offers a chance to get reacquainted with old favorites and make some new friends, too. 

Karl Shell, the first editor of JET, also contributes a short essay with some memories of the founding of the journal, "Fifty years of the Journal of Economic Theory," including that time when a mathematical economist was "an economist who knew a bit of calculus" and when a number of leading journals "did not do dots"--that is, the journal would not allow an author to use the common mathematical symbol of putting a dot over a variable to indicate differentiation over time. Shell writes:
About 52 years ago, the Academic Press (AP) mathematics editor, Edwin Beschler, and I met for lunch at the MIT faculty club. We sat at a table for two, not at the usual economics round table, at which Paul Samuelson held court.
Edwin is a central character in the JET story. He was a professional actor. He had been a math undergrad. He was a splendid science editor. Much of what I know about publishing is from Edwin. ... At the lunch, Edwin said that a committee of economists suggested that he approach me about the possibility of editing a new journal to be called “The Journal of Mathematical Economics”. I expressed interest but only if AP would accept the alternative title: Journal of Economic Theory. Edwin called later to report that the committee would accept my proposed title. He invited me to talk turkey at the AP offices at 111 Fifth Avenue in New York. AP and I struck the deal. ...
What is wrong with “Mathematical Economics”?\
Back in the sixties, the term could be vague. A mathematical economist might be an economist who knew a bit of calculus. Or, he might be someone teaching microeconomics, remedial math, and/or econometric theory. These definitions became unsupportable. We wanted to focus on high-brow and middle-brow and even low-brow economic theory. (In Bob Solow's definition, the brow-level was a measure of the level of the math. I think Bob is proud of being thought of as a middle-brow economist.) On the other hand, we strove to include papers on related mathematics and computation. Math is an essential tool, but our focus was on economic theory. ...

What were the publication options for economic theorists before JET?
  • Econometrica, the ES society journal, was — and is — an excellent outlet for economic theory, mathematical economics, and econometrics. It was plagued with senior staffing problems in the 60's. The editor tendered his resignation to become the dean at Northwestern. An unverified story has it that an ES committee was tasked with naming a new editor. According to the story, the committee would gather from round the world and work out a list of top candidates. None of the candidates turned out to be willing. And so on and on seriatim. When the editor became the Northwestern president, submissions were boxed awaiting a new editor. The boxed submissions provided opportunity for JET.
  • The Review of Economic Studies was an excellent outlet for growth theory and other theory. It was a UK society journal.
  • The JPE is the house journal of Chicago. It was a good place to publish. They were not closed to theory.
  • The QJE was the house journal of Harvard. They were insular. I published with Joe Stiglitz an article on the allocation of investment. We used superior dots to denotes time differentiation. We had to find another symbol because HU Press did not do dots.
  • The AER is the society journal of the AEA. In my paper on inventive activity and growth, they did attempt dots, but depending on the position in the production line some or all of the dots broke off. In the early years of JET, the AER editor used a printed postcard for rejections: “Your paper put me to sleep. Submit it to JET.” The AER editor rejected the Lucas classic included in this anniversary issue.
  • The IER was the house journal of Penn and Osaka. The IER was dedicated to quantitative economics, including mathematical economic theory.
So the field was not completely wide open, but it was a good time to start a journal in our rapidly growing field.