The economist Preston McAfee is trying to do some good

I first met Preston McAfee in Barcelona about 10 years ago. I was giving my paper on Lojack, which I had given way too many times because it was the paper I used on the job market. I had stopped getting new and interesting comments from the audience at least 5 seminars earlier. But in Barcelona, the next-to-last time I ever gave the paper, some guy in the corner of the room made two or three brilliant comments I had never heard before and greatly improved the paper. It turned out to be Preston McAfee. So now, whenever he does something, I try to pay attention.

Preston is on a mission. He wants academic output to be cheap. And he is trying to do something about it.

For starters, he has written an open-source economics textbook that he is giving away for free.

When he told me about this, I wrote back that he was nuts. To my mind, it makes sense to give away scholarly research to economics journals because we as academics get rewarded in other ways for those sorts of contributions to knowledge. But, nobody gets much academic credit for writing textbooks; people mostly do it to make money. It is an incredible amount of work to write a textbook. I do like the book, though. And you can’t beat the price.

His latest endeavor (with Theodore Bergstrom) is fighting the high prices of academic journals. Their web page devoted to this is here. I edit a journal called the Journal of Political Economy. If you check out that journal at McAfee’s website, you will see that it is very cheap. As McAfee notes, one reason journals can be cheap is that they pay editors very little (in my case nothing at all).

McAfee and Bergstrom have also posted an open letter as well as some statistics. For-profit journals charge a lot more than not-for-profit ones, which is different than with hospitals.

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  1. jkrowas says:

    McAfee’s book serves an important purpose at Caltech, where everyone has to take either introductory economics or introductory political science (i.e., game theory with Ordeshook). Since most principles books don’t use calculus, and every Caltech freshman knows calculus, there’s a cognitive disconnect, using lots of words where a simple derivative would do. Using calculus in an introductory book suits Techers just fine. I love the part where he says “marginal is just economists’ jargon for ‘deriviative of’”. Most economics textbooks say something like “‘derviative of’ is just mathemeticians’ jargon for ‘marginal’”.

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  2. jkrowas says:

    McAfee’s book serves an important purpose at Caltech, where everyone has to take either introductory economics or introductory political science (i.e., game theory with Ordeshook). Since most principles books don’t use calculus, and every Caltech freshman knows calculus, there’s a cognitive disconnect, using lots of words where a simple derivative would do. Using calculus in an introductory book suits Techers just fine. I love the part where he says “marginal is just economists’ jargon for ‘deriviative of’”. Most economics textbooks say something like “‘derviative of’ is just mathemeticians’ jargon for ‘marginal’”.

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  3. StCheryl says:

    Preston McAfee is an original thinker — he wrote a hilarious sendup of economics and economic history in a 1983 American Economic Review paper called “Economic Growth and the Voyage of Columbus.” It was an attempt to quantify what America would have been like in the event that Columbus had not landed there. Even the footnotes are funny. If he never did anything else, that was an important contribution to the economics literature.

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  4. StCheryl says:

    Preston McAfee is an original thinker — he wrote a hilarious sendup of economics and economic history in a 1983 American Economic Review paper called “Economic Growth and the Voyage of Columbus.” It was an attempt to quantify what America would have been like in the event that Columbus had not landed there. Even the footnotes are funny. If he never did anything else, that was an important contribution to the economics literature.

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  5. StCheryl says:

    Did anyone else notice that Oliver Smoot, for whom the Smoot bridge between Boston and Cambridge, and that unit of measure, retired from the National Academy of Standards? The link tells the story of how the bridge and measure got their name.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/07/AR2005120702328.html

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  6. StCheryl says:

    Did anyone else notice that Oliver Smoot, for whom the Smoot bridge between Boston and Cambridge, and that unit of measure, retired from the National Academy of Standards? The link tells the story of how the bridge and measure got their name.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/07/AR2005120702328.html

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  7. John S. says:

    While I am not unsympathetic to their cause, the following line from McAfee and Bergstrom’s open letter caused a chuckle:

    “The prices set by profit-maximizing publishers are determined not by costs, but by what the market will bear.”

    Call the Nobel committee, I believe these two are on to something!

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  8. John S. says:

    While I am not unsympathetic to their cause, the following line from McAfee and Bergstrom’s open letter caused a chuckle:

    “The prices set by profit-maximizing publishers are determined not by costs, but by what the market will bear.”

    Call the Nobel committee, I believe these two are on to something!

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0