The International Seminar on Macroeconomics

By Gordon, Robert J. | NBER Reporter, Spring 1991 | Go to article overview

The International Seminar on Macroeconomics


Gordon, Robert J., NBER Reporter


The International Seminar on Macroeconomics (ISOM), founded in 1978, was one of the earliest collaborative activities of the NBER with economists and organizations in Europe. The proceedings of all but the first of this annual conference series have been published as special issues of the European Economic Review (EER). This retrospective article traces the origin and organizational aspects of the ISOM that have contributed to its success. Subsequently the article turns to some of the main themes of international and comparative macroeconomic that emerge from the record of more than a decade of ISOM conferences. (1)

Origin and Organization

In 1977-8 international economic and political relations between Europe and the United States were strained by debates over the distribution of oil deficits, the desirability of expansionary demand policies, and the necessity of intervention in currency markets. Academic controversy raged over the interpretation of the new macroeconomic environment of the 1970s, especially policy responses to oil price shocks and the potential for monetary independence under flexible exchange rates. The development of academic macroeconomics since World War II had been dominated by Americans, but their models suffered from a closed-economy orientation that failed to incorporate many of the distinctive features of the 1970s. Europeans, who were born internationalists, nevertheless (with some notable exceptions) had been on the periphery of academic developments since the war, reflecting many influences, including the interwar emigration of talented economists from central Europe, the increasing dominance of the English language in academic economics, and the lead of Anglo-American academics in developing the new postwar toolkit of mathematical theory and econometrics.

This setting of international discord, theoretical controversy, and transatlantic academic imbalance combined to spur the conception by Martin Feldstein, NBER president, that an international seminar should be organized. Feldstein met in Paris with Georges de Menil, and they framed the joint sponsorship of the seminar by the NBER and the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (MSH).(2) I was then designated by Feldstein as the co-organizer of ISOM with de Menil.(3)

The coorganizers made several early decisions that have shped ISOM since its first meeting. To avoid the intellectual dominance of American macroeconomics, the seminar was designed with a format explicitly to promote European participation. Rather than alternating between the United States and Europe, the conference is always held in Europe.(4) In a two-day conference with seven formal paper presentations, at least five of the papers are authored solely by Europeans or have at least one European cauthor. But an equal transatlantic balance is maintained among the formal conference discussants: there are two for each paper, one from each side of the Atlantic. The overall list of participants consists roughly of one-third Americans and two-thirds Europeans. Beginning in 1983, the definition of non-American was broadened to include Japanese economists.

As the ISOM evolved, these decisions on format have been instrumenta in its success. The skiwing of authors and participants away from Americans helped to establish the atmosphere of an intellectual common market among the European participants, balanced by the transatlantic perspective provided by the discussants. A stable and broad-based program committee, virtually intact since the first meeting, has provided an important element of continuity that has helped maintain the "style" of the ISOM; members of the program committee not only attend each meeting and advise on the merits of potential future authors, but also serve frequently as discussants. (5)

The financing of the conference has been shared by the NBER with the MSH, acting as an umbrella organization that channels the contributions of different national European organizations. …

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