Reacting to “Finding Equilibrium” by Till Düppe and E. Roy Weintraub

Another title for this post could be “Why people who talk about general equilibrium theory should always mention the Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie model, without omitting McKenzie”.

Prompted by a post by Joshua Gans, which I saw first on Google+, I recently bought the book Finding Equilibrium, as on the title of this post. The book contains an insightful discussion of the problem of assigning scientific credit in economics, as the book’s subtitle makes clear: Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie and the Problem of Scientific Credit. I finished the book today. It was published by Princeton University Press very recently, in 2014.

The authors continue an old project of the more senior of the two, Weintraub, that dates from the early 1980s. It has to do with why the Arrow-Debreu paper on the existence of general equilibrium gets more airtime in economic theory circles than McKenzie’s paper, even though the latter was submitted to Econometrica and published a bit earlier than the former.

I must disclose here that Lionel McKenzie was a member of my doctoral dissertation committee. I defended my dissertation at the University of Rochester in 1988 to earn my Ph.D. Furthermore, the professor responsible for my applying (and being accepted, I am sure) to the graduate program in economics at Rochester, Emmanuel Drandakis, was the second person to receive a Rochester Ph.D. in economics after McKenzie created the economics department and graduate program there in the late 1950s. Thus, I was immersed in the story of McKenzie’s unfair treatment in not receiving a Nobel Prize, unlike Arrow and Debreu. The story was “in the air” at Rochester, but I did not hear McKenzie himself talk about it, to the best of my recollection. This accords with my memory of McKenzie as a perfect gentleman; in the book I am talking about here, he is described as “classy” by one of the economists quoted there.

I enjoyed the book and read it in a couple of days, even as it came in the middle of a week that started with some worries in my personal life. It gave me the idea of writing a paper about the now ignored general equilibrium approach as it, I think, should be revived in conjunction with extensions to make it properly include collective goods and externalities (an approach that should proceed with techniques not only limited to the axiom-and-proof ones that were the hallmark of the emergence of general equilibrium in the 1950s). I have worked in this area before, myself, so I may have something new of interest to say by revisiting it. However, I did not want to wait to post here until I wrote a paper; that would mean quite a long wait!

Apart from the inclusion of some jargon from the sociology of science and (naturally) from economics, the book is very well written for a general audience. It flows well and is very instructive. The authors make the best of the fact that their topic allows them, by its very nature, to tell it as a story of people and their interactions. Readers always want stories (as we must remember every time we have to teach abstract ideas in the classroom).

As someone who is well versed in general equilibrium theory (although I’ve been neglecting it lately), I found the exposition of the theory’s inception in the book well done. Furthermore, it gave me a few perspectives and some context I did not already have. If I were to teach general equilibrium again, I would be sure to assign parts of this book to complement the rather dry and scary (for students) mathematics that dominate the theory.

Gans’s post that led me to this book concluded that, of the three main protagonists, Debreu emerges in the most unfavorable light. That is indeed my impression and it comes from documentary evidence of his behavior as a referee of McKenzie’s paper for Econometrica and also vis-a-vis his own co-author, Kenneth Arrow, from whom he kept secret his knowledge that McKenzie was already working on his own paper on pretty much the same topic. By contrast, McKenzie emerges clearly as the wronged party and Arrow as quite generous in giving credit to scholars who preceded him.

So, for the very few of you who say “Arrow-Debreu”, please do remember to say “Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie” when talking about general equilibrium theory.

[Edited 2014-09-29 to correct some infelicities in my use of English.]

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