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?


Criticizing by calling out numbers that everyone understands reminds me of the infamous low budget Shakespeare company. Because they couldn't afford a full set of letters to put on their marquee they could only advertise their plays by code:

3" was "Much Ado About Nothing"
6" was "As You Like It"
12" was "The Taming of the Shrew"


It's true because it says so right here in my notes.

Carol C.

-Why don't you try GOLS?
Good Old Least Squares

People should realize it is funny... the first time you hear it!


The Soviets tried that and it didn't work.

Hersh Adlerstein

Well, I laughed, so maybe - but just and only maybe - economics isn't always the dismal science.

Andreas Hoefert

"This theory is only valid in the static case and won't work in the dynamic one."

Free after Fritz Machlup's "Dynamics: my theory. Statics: the theory of my opponent."


Twenty years ago I heard a story of a friend who was an economics grad student at the London School of Economics. The prof asked some impossibly hard question. My friend was stumped. He had to do something, so he said, "What about China?" The professor said, "Ah, China!" and treated my friend like a genius for the rest of the semester. Since then I always imagine--though can't remember ever having done--trying out, "What about China?" whenever I'm in a tricky situation. Shall it be added to the list?


gee, is Jacob the only one who can read? (33 should be added)

34. 1 through 32(33)are obsolete. It's the "New Economy", stupid.

35. There is no "New Economy".

Pierce Randall

I would love to see a character in a play only respond in lines from that list.

That the same discussion is being re-hashed 30 years later where the economy has (I say, at least) changed faster than our core culture is even stranger. We've got hyperreality, ultramodernism, deconstruction, postcolonialism, and personal-is-political signification to describe the same old suburban, prosperous, technically-we're-not-racist,-but-really-that's-debatable, militant Western hegemony that amounts to our broad cultural and political condition, but economists are dealing with a real post-industrial, neo-Liberal, unprecedentedly-globalized, information economy having the same discussion Milton Friedman or Paul Volcker would have.

Or, at least, that's how I understand the article. I don't really know enough about economics to challenge the assertion that the language has not, in fact, changed.


For Accountants:

While real investment may be better for the economy, speculators make more money and are more willing to pay top dollar for the advice on tax evasion that is our stock and trade.

Dan M.

For arguments involving the calculation of the CPI-
Can you quantify the assumptions of your substitution model?


No politician would ever push that policy unless he wanted to be out of a job.


LTCM tried something like that and you know how that ended up!

Richard Holden

That's ok in practice, but it won't work in theory.


How is your model identified?

Have you included fixed effects?

That lagged dependent variable is atheoretical.


PS Grad student

This works for political science too. I'm printing this off and taking it to APSA next week!


N+1. Isn't this just Modigliani-Miller?


"Your empirical results are obviously biased by a troubling sample selection issue."

R. J.

One of the most devestating (and best) is missing from the list...

"Why do we care about this?" or "Why is this question important anyway?"

Mostly, it applies to younger Ph.Ds, but I've seen it completely deflate old hands too.


What about the other way round? What about common responses? As in the commonly heard:
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating!