In a Project Syndicate column, Federico Fubini makes the argument that the intellectual leaders in economics from ten years ago are still the leaders of today, and this despite the fact that we have had a financial crisis that was not predicted by the profession. I do not agree with this column on several fronts. As the argument was made using RePEc data, I feel obligated to set the record straight.
One may discuss whether the economics profession has really not seen the crisis coming. But even if this crisis was unforeseen, it is wrong to argue on principle that the best economists from ten years ago should not be considered to be the best today. Indeed, it is not the case that the whole profession is focussed on predicting financial or economic crises. Economics has much more to offer, just see the list of recent Nobel Prize winners or the large variety of fields covered by NEP, RePEc’s research alert service. Most of those fields have nothing to do with crises. For example, the leaders in auction theory from ten years ago are likely to be leaders now, the same applies to development economics, empirical labor economics, or environmental economics. Ten years is short in the evolution of scientists.
But beyond this mischaracterization of what the economics profession does, there is the issue with the use of the data to prove the point. Fubini uses the ranking of economists provided by IDEAS/RePEc, taking the December 2006 and the September 2015 rankings. But before looking at them, one has to understand what they measure. They are an aggregation of 23 (2006) or 35 (2015) criteria, almost all of which pertain to the lifetime output of the economists. Those that are not are four looking at readership statistics for the last months, and in the recent rankings six criteria discounting citations by their age. Basically, the accumulated research and citations that were considered in 2006 are also considered in 2015. There is obviously going to be high persistence among the best economists. And keep in mind that critiquing someone will earn him a citation.
What you want to do is using two datasets that do not overlap, one that considers publications until 2006, and one since that year. One can get very close by using another ranking, the one that considers only the publications from the last 10 years. In the following I will use the one that was published today and pertains to December 2015. We have thus only one year of overlap in the publication dates. And the results look quite different (I did this in a couple of hours, I cannot vouch the numbers are totally correct).
|Incumbency rate by cohort
The rest of the arguments in the Fubini column also change quite a bit once you look at better data.
You must not be an economist. In fact, Lucas and Fama both moved up in the RePEc rankings during the period I examined, from 30 to nine and from 23 to 17, respectively. And the persistence at the top is striking across the board. Among the top ten economists in September 2015, six were already there in December 2006, and another two were ranked 11 and 13.
Lucas (Robert E. Jr.) and Fama actually dropped, Lucas from 30 to 33, Fama from 23 to … not being ranked in the top 10%. And in the top ten for December 2015, only three where there in 2006, another two ranked 11 and 13 in 2006 (the same).
Mobility in the RePEc rankings remains subdued even after widening the sample. For example, of the top 100 economists in September 2015, only 14 were absent from the much wider top 5% in 2006, and only two others had advanced more than 200 spots over the previous decade. Among those recently ranked from 101 to 200, just 24 were not in the top 5% in 2006, and only ten others had moved up by more than 200 places. The rate of renewal among the 200 most influential economists was as low as 25% – and just 16% among the top 100 – during a decade in which the explanatory power of prevailing economic theory had been found severely wanting.
Again with better data, this looks different. From the 2015 top 100, 41 were absent from the top 5% in 2006. Nine advanced more than 200 spots. For 101 to 200, 45 were not in the top 5%, and seven moved up more than 200 spots. Using Fubini’s definitions, the renewal rate is thus 51% in the top 200 and 50% in the top 100. Hardly a stagnation.
In the rankings of economists, by contrast, criteria such as gender or geographic origin confirm the overall inertia. Only four women made the RePEc top 200 in September 2015, compared to three in December 2006, and two were included on both lists. Likewise, emerging countries – which represent more than 90% of the world’s population, three-quarters of global GDP growth over the last decade, and nearly half of total income in current dollar terms – supplied just 11 of the top 200 economists in September 2015, up from ten in December 2006. And ten of those 11 – three Iranians, four Indians, two Turks, and one Chinese – have lived and worked in the US or the United Kingdom since their student days.
With better data, this changes as well. There are now seven women. Still too few, though. There are 18 economists from emerging countries: two Turks, one Egyptian, seven Indians, two Iranians, two Pakistani, one from Cameroun, two Chinese, one Bangladeshi. Eight of them live in an emerging economy.
I’ll let the reader judge whether there is still a “closed market place for ideas in economics.” But the picture certainly looks different from what Fubini seems to imply.