Have Economic Debates Changed Since 1977?

I recently happened upon one of George Stigler‘s humorous asides in the 1977 Journal of Political Economy — “The Conference Handbook.” In order to make discussions of research papers more efficient, Stigler suggested that one should simply interrupt the speaker by shouting the numbered objection, rather than the usual, overly long interjection. And as a public service, he gave a list of the objections one typically encounters:

1. Adam Smith said that.
2. Unfortunately, there is an identification problem which is not dealt with adequately in the paper.
3. The residuals are clearly non-normal, and the specification of the model is incorrect.
4. Theorizing is not fruitful at this stage; we need a series of case studies.
5. Case studies are a clue, but no real progress can be made until a model of the process is constructed.
6. The second-best consideration would, of course, vitiate the argument.
7. That is an index number problem (obs., except in Cambridge).
8. Have you tried two-stage least squares?
9. The conclusions change if you introduce uncertainty.
10. You didn’t use probit analysis?
11. I proved the main results in a paper published years ago.
12. The analysis is marred by a failure to distinguish transitory and permanent components.
13. The market cannot, of course, deal satisfactorily with that externality.
14. But what if transaction costs are not zero?
15. That follows from the Coase Theorem.
16. Of course, if you allow for the investment in human capital, the entire picture changes.
17. Of course, the demand function is quite inelastic.
18. Of course, the supply function is highly inelastic.
19. The author uses a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.
20. What empirical finding would contradict your theory?
21. The central argument is not only a tautology, it is false.
22. What happens when you extend the analysis to the later (or earlier) period?
23. The motivation of the agents in this theory is so narrowly egotistic that it cannot possibly explain the behavior of real people.
24. The flabby economic actor in this impressionistic model should be replaced by the utility-maximizing individual.
25. Did you have any trouble in inverting the singular matrix?
26. It is unfortunate that the wrong choice was made between M1 and M2.
27. That is alright in theory, but it doesn’t work out in practice (use sparingly).
28. The speaker apparently believes that there is still one free lunch.
29. The problem cannot be dealt with by partial equilibrium methods; it requires a general equilibrium formulation.
30. The paper is rigidly confined by the paradigm of neoclassical economics, so large parts of urgent reality are outside its comprehension.
31. The conclusion rests on the assumption of fixed tastes, but (of course) tastes have surely changed.
32. The trouble with the present situation is that the property rights have not been fully assigned.

The list is hilarious [Ed. note: particularly if you are an economist; if not, perhaps not so much].

But there’s a more subtle point being made here: There is so much agreement within economics about valid inference that Stigler’s list comes close to characterizing (and caricaturing) “a large share of the comments elicited in most conferences.”

Perhaps this suggests a methodological narrowness to neoclassical economics. But equally, it is the clarity of the framework that gives economic analysis its power. (Feel free to insert joke here about two-handed economists; although recognize that even an octopus couldn’t summarize the consensus within, say, sociology.)

But the thing that truly struck me about Stigler’s list is how well it has aged since 1977. Is it really the case that economics has advanced so little that 30 years later we are still having the same old debates?

If not, what other conference comments do you think should be added to the 2008 edition?


@ 26. August 20th, 20083:36 pm

I hadn't heard this variation, but it's good fun, and if I can retell @42:

The one I heard was:

A newcomer steps into a southern Irish bar with a local guy, everyone knows each other, and the guys are calling out numbers: 54! one says to widespread cackling, 33! another says to mild amusement. The newcomer says to his friend "what's going on here?", and he's informed "the jokes here got recycled so many times that the punters decided to assign numbers to then." Thoroughly impressed the newcomer takes a moment between rounds to shout "93!", at which the entire pub dissolves in hysterics and whooping. The newcomer ask his friend "so what was so funny?" and his mate says "they hadn't heard that one before".

Anyway, back to the topic.

My all-time, universal, all-purpose favorite is:

You've demonstrated correlation, not causation.

Followed by:

Thanks for the economics, we've got a fiscal issue here.

That's not something the Minister need concern himself about.

If you give me output gap financing and Hollis-Chenery one more time it's going on your performance record.

No, ODA at 0.7% of GNI will not solve it, the goofy analysis is from 1969. Would you make Jefferson Airplane Tops of the Pops now?

@32 - the New Zealand Minister of Energy had the same issue about the break-up of the national electricity grid. Worked fine in practice as a monopoly, worked poorly in theory. So it was restructured. In fact it was restructured so completely it lost track of customers. I joined up with a company and expected a bill, which never came. Being of a mind that I'm perfectly willing to pay any and all legit bills when I receive them, I waited. 18 months go by. Then the company deems, somehow, that my house has been unoccupied for six months. And cancels the contract. Hooks the plug from my outside electric board and that's it.

I get a new supplier in three hours... Weirdest utility experience ever.

Bt then I moved to the US...




33. That's not a large effect you've found, it's a small effect.

34. That's not a small effect you've dismissed, it's a large effect.

Sumitra Shah

Great additions to the Stigler list! Taking off on #44, posted by Chaon, if you are not a mainstreamer and wander into these sessions:

You need to reveal your implicit assumption.

Where have all the institutions gone?


I once gave a seminar and the great Australian economist/raconteur Adrian Pagan was in the audience. The conversation went something like this:

AP: "I remember working on this back in the 80's, quite straightforward as I remember."

H: "Can you give me a citation?"

AP: "No, no, just something I tossed around for a while."

So I would throw "I did this back in the 80's" into the mix.

Michael Margolis

On a serious note, why is it felt that this list (and the reality that makes it still amuse us) suggests "methodological narrowness"? Numbers 23 and 31 both seem to me versions of "Too bad we're still stuck with neoclassical methods" and attest a widespread urge to move beyond that tradition without becoming, as so many have over the years, incoherent.

The same urge is seen in the enthusiasm generated by the first generation of "behavioral" results. That this has given rise to a cranky backlash is pretty much as it should be.

I think we can by now add: "The question can really only be answered by experiment".

Ettore Panetti

Can any software geek create an "Economic Debate Automatic Generator", please?


Remember international trade:

"You are confounding overvaluation of the peso with undervaluation of the dollar"

Tim Worstall

The "French Objection".

Yes, yes, that's all very well in practice but how does it work in theory?


Pierce Randall, I believe you forgot "phallocentric".

T. Efthimiadis

My supervisor would regularly use the following:
"How does the Lucas critique apply in this case?"

Long-term Observer

In the long run, we're all dead.

(first attributed to John Maynard Keynes)


"Why didn't you HP=filter the data?"

"Why didn't you use a band-pass filter?"

"Did you try first-differencing?"

"What happens if you estimate it by GMM?"


Your standard errors are too small because you failed to cluster (or clustered at the improper level).


"Are your results robust to the introduction of Knightian uncertainty?"
"Did you check the bootstrap distribution of that estimator?"
"The results of the paper that you cited were reversed after the change from fixed-weight to chain-weighted deflators."
"Mundell/Modigliani/Mandelbrot pointed that out in the 1960s."
"They tried that in Chile/Estonia/Uttar Pradesh; it was a disaster."
"That's what Enron was doing."
"Aren't you confusing the subjective and the objective density functions?"
"Such a policy would be literally incredible."
"Could you restate those findings as a Axiom?"

...and of course....

"What? That's it?!"


Labor supply isn't that elastic.


This reminds me of a story I heard a while back. Two friends are reading a book "The 100 Best Jokes Ever Told". Each of the jokes is numbered and they pass hours laughing at each of them. A few days later they know by heart all of the jokes in the book, each funnier than the last. "Number 44" "Ha, ha, ha, but what about number 10?" "Yeah, that is great, but nothing compared to 89" And the two ended up laughing rolling on the floor shouting numbers at each other.

Jesse Silverglate

The evidence is definitely not indicative of a bubble, just irrational exuberance.

What we have is just some froth in the market


How about,

"That's true, but not very interesting."

rat sass

my own favorite is the dismissive, "it's orthoganal."

clearly this list is stigler's greatest contribution to the field!


Max Weber already told us that