How American Economic Growth and the Voyage of Columbus Came About

March, 2021

Bob Clower, who was the AER editor at the time, had been the editor of Economic Inquiry, which under his editorship published occasional humor pieces, including Life Among the Econ. At the time, the Journal of Political Economy published the most economics humor, thanks to the existence of a Miscellany section, and the humor of George Stigler. (The linked paper is a proposal to make conferences more efficient by numbering common comments and have people just shout out the numbers rather than make the comment.)

I took a class on economic history in grad school, which focused on Robert Fogel's counterfactual method. I also used to publish a weekly newsletter, The Econoclast, in grad school, lampooning my professors and fellow students. About my second year as an assistant professor, I was watching the movie Animal House and realized I hadn't written anything funny in a couple of years, so I wrote a spoof of Fogel's article. It was hand-written. A co-author, Peter Howitt, gave a copy to Clower, who wanted to publish it. (I had to get it typed, first.)

Clower sent it out for refereeing, and he and the referees asked me to expand it. So I added a section about how to game journal ranking systems by referencing itself, and making fun of Law and Economics as a field. What came back was a request to take that section out, so effectively they published the original submission.

A firestorm, or a tempest in a teapot, followed. There were dozens of people protesting the waste of journal space and insisting that economics is a serious business. Clower weathered the storm but never published another humor article. I also received tons of criticism, including dozens of people who claimed I had wrecked my career, would never publish another paper in a major journal, etc. Stigler wrote me and said there were three things wrong with my article: 1. too long, 2. should have contained a statement, even a couple of sentences, on what I actually thought, and 3. it should have been published in the JPE. I wasn't worried about my critics. Indeed, it is less than a decade later that I become a co-editor of the American Economic Review.

With Stigler's death, the JPE retires the Miscellany section. In 2007 I become the editor of Economic Inquiry (so that I can run a great experiment: the no revisions option), and launch a Miscellany section, edited by the funniest guy in the profession. We solicit and publish papers by Nobel Laureates Jim Heckman and Paul Krugman. Bauman proceeds to turn down my submission, The Cookie Caper, which is written in the hard-boiled detective style (there is a page of preamble). It is the only mistake he made; that paper has been translated into Spanish.