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May 7, 2006
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Broader, Deeper

It was a big step last week when the executive committee of the American Economic Association, meeting in Chicago, authorized the creation of four new topical journals.

For the first time since the American Economic Review (AER) was established in 1911, the dominant association in North America (and, at least for a while longer, in the world) has recognized that the demand for economics is not only broadening but becoming more specialized as well — like the economy itself.

The AER will remain the flagship journal, publishing articles of interest to broadest possible swathe of professional economists.

The Journal of Economic Literature, begun in 1969 to review and summarize what was even then an avalanche of serious economics publishing, and the Journal of Economic Perspectives, created 1987 fill a gap between the general interest press and most other academic economics journals, will continue to occupy their respective niches as well.

But four new journals will appear, about two years from now.  Their titles have only just been announced (pending a copyright check). The plan is to call each the American Economic Journal: the subtitle to follow the colon. It’s clear that the formulators hope the new “aggregate field journals” will render old boundaries more porous, and cause new distinctions to evolve.

  • Perhaps the most interesting departures will be found eventually in the fledgling AEJ: Macroeconomics, which briefly was to have been titled AEJ: Aggregate Economics.  AEJ Macro is expected to combine traditional concerns for economic fluctuations with much of the new international economics, the growth part of development economics, some of political economy and other attempts to construct system-scale economics from the bottom up. (If in fact the AEA had decided to replace the slightly-loaded macro distinction with more neutral aggregate appellation, it would have been news.)

  • Least surprising is the AEJ: Microeconomics, emphasizing traditional industrial organization, game theory, and certain aspects of public finance. Earlier, EP‘s email edition mistakenly ascribed a distinctive interest in behavioral economics to the fledgling journal. In fact, appropriate discussions of behavioral and historical topics are expected to be admissible in all four journals.

  • The AEJ: Economic Policy will treat interactions of the familiar topics of monetary and fiscal policy with a variety of regimes recently considered to have been added to the policy tool box — everything from health and retirement policies to intellectual property rules.

  • The AEJ: Applied Economics will consist of present-day labor economics writ large: all the light that can be shed on the real world by large data sets, new statistical techniques and fast computers.   

Princeton University economist Alan Krueger designed the survey that buttressed the conviction that the AEA’s membership wants a broader palette on which to paint; Stanford’s Robert Hall chaired the committee that planned the new entries.  Vanderbilt’s John Siegfried, secretary-treasurer of the AEA, said that the current plan is to make all four of the new journals available to members electronically for no increase in their dues, and to make all four journals available in print to libraries for a modest increase in subscription prices per journal when each is published (probably in the $75-$100 range for each new journal). Individuals will have the option also to purchase print copies for a modest price. 

Still to be assembled are mission statements and committees to choose editors for the new journals.  Only when the editors are finally chosen will the real work begin — dealing with the continually shifting boundaries of what is considered to be new and interesting economics.

The appearance of the new journals doubtless will have its effect on the rest of the universe of journals of technical economics, and in ways that no one can entirely foresee.  The oldest journals, the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Journal of Political Economy, are associated with university departments (Harvard and the University of Chicago).  They pride themselves on quick turnarounds and intellectual nimbleness.  They are unlikely to suffer much from the AEA’s expansion. Commercial journal publishers may be more affected.

There was, apparently, no major battle over the new groupings; rather, instead, simply a sense that the time had come to acknowledge that economics’ scale and scope had grown substantially in the last fifty years. “There’s a sense that this is a real departure,” said one insider. “It’s the largest break in behavior in a long time.” 

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