The Legend of Arthur

The search for better economic policy.
Jan. 15 1998 3:30 AM

The Legend of Arthur

A tale of gullibility at The New Yorker.

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"In a way, Bill Gates's current troubles with the Justice Department grew out of an economics seminar that took place thirteen years ago, at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government." So begins an article by John Cassidy in the Jan. 12 issue of The New Yorker, titled "The Force of an Idea." The idea that Cassidy refers to is that of "increasing returns"--which says that goods become cheaper the more of them you produce (and the closely related idea of "network externalities," which says that some products, like fax machines, become more useful the more people use them). Cassidy's article tells the story of how Stanford Professor Brian Arthur came up with the idea of increasing returns, held fast to that idea despite the obstinate opposition of mainstream economists and, after many years as an academic pariah, finally managed to change the way people think about the economy. That story has been told before, most notably in M. Mitchell Waldrop's popular 1992 book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, and a good story it certainly is.

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It is also pure fiction. Increasing returns wasn't a new idea, it wasn't obstinately opposed--and if increasing returns play a larger role in mainstream economic theory now than they did 20 years ago, Arthur didn't have much to do with that change. Indeed, the spread of the Arthurian legend is a better story than the legend itself: an object lesson in journalistic gullibility.

So what, you may ask. What could be less interesting than squabbling among professors over who deserves the credit for some theory? Well, I could say that this bogus version of intellectual history has metastasized to the point where it may begin to do real harm--to discredit good economics and to promote dubious policies. But the real truth is that I'm just pissed off.

Let's start with the legend. Here's how it all began, according to Waldrop. On Nov. 5, 1979, Brian Arthur wrote in his notebook a manifesto describing his project to develop a New Economics based on increasing returns. In a park in Vienna, he tried to explain it to a "distinguished international trade theorist" from Norway, who was baffled. So were other establishment economists. Thus began Arthur's years in the wilderness. In 1983, he completed his seminal paper, but not until 1989, after 14 rewrites, was he able to publish it. "Gradually," writes Cassidy, "a number of economists"--such as Georgetown University's Steve Salop--"began to take Arthur's conclusions seriously."

Great story. Now let's do a reality check, starting with that walk in the park. It is, indeed, truly astonishing that the Norwegian, Victor Norman, did not understand what Arthur was driving at. After all, there is a long tradition of increasing returns in international trade theory. If nothing else, Norman should have been familiar with his own co-authored book, Theory of International Trade, which was in galleys at the time. It contained a whole chapter devoted to increasing returns, based largely on a paper Norman himself had written three years before. Is it possible that Arthur misinterpreted Norman's bafflement--that what Norman really couldn't understand was why Arthur thought he was saying anything new?

W hen I first saw Arthur's work, probably sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s, I thought it didn't tell me anything. His mathematical models were basically similar to those developed in the 1970s by the game theorist Thomas Schelling. Moreover, Arthur seemed unaware of the conceptual difficulties that had led economists not to ignore but to. His paper simply ignored them. During the course of the 1980s those conceptual difficulties were partly resolved, leading to a burst of theorizing about increasing returns. But Arthur's work played no role in that resolution.

I wasn't at that 1984 Harvard seminar that Cassidy describes. I was down the road at MIT, finishing with a co-author a book titled Market Structure and Foreign Trade: Increasing Returns, Imperfect Competition, and the International Economy. But it would surprise me if the Harvard audience were unwilling to accept the notion of increasing returns, as Cassidy says. After all, at the time the Harvard economics department included A. Michael Spence, who had won the Clark Medal (the highest award of the American Economic Association) largely for his work on--you guessed it--increasing returns.

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E conLit, the database of professional literature since 1970, reveals that by 1987--the moment Waldrop's book claims that Arthur's theories about increasing returns began to be accepted--mainstream journals had published about 140 papers on the subject. Salop, the Georgetown professor Cassidy presents as an early convert to Arthur's ideas, was early indeed. He wrote one of his own best-known papers on increasing returns in 1978--a year before Arthur, by his own account, even began to think about the subject.

Brian Arthur is a nice guy, who I think sincerely believes that it happened the way he tells it. But how can an experienced journalist like Cassidy be so credulous? Perhaps a journalist cannot be expected to be an expert on the ins and outs of an academic discipline--although Cassidy is The New Yorker's economics correspondent. But even if we accept that Cassidy doesn't know much about the discipline he currently covers, what happened to basic journalistic instincts?

Suppose that someone tells you that, years ago, he made a fundamental discovery that an entire profession, out of sheer narrow-mindedness, refused to listen to and prevented him from publishing. Wouldn't you have at least a slight suspicion that this version of events might be a bit, well, self-serving--a suspicion strong enough to send you to a college library to see whether the facts check out?

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