Editor's Notes

By Mayhew, Anne | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Editor's Notes


Mayhew, Anne, Journal of Economic Issues


Because this is the last issue of the JEI that will be published under my editorship, I am taking the liberty of moving this expanded version of "Editor's Notes" to the beginning of the issue. A review of the JEI over the nine years that I have served as editor reveals that, just as in the economies that we study, external events alter patterns, but they do so in ways that are patterned by the past. In the first issue for which I had full responsibility, in September 1991, the lead article was by Rey Koslowski on "Market Institutions, East European Reform, and Economic Theory." The changes in Central and Eastern European economies altered the course of disciplinary dialogue and gave new relevance to the institutionalist proposition that a self-regulating market economy is not a natural phenomenon. The shock therapists who were at center stage in the early 1990s did not understand, as do institutionalists, that all economies are "instituted"; they are all human creations that involve culturally patterned resp onses to changing events. The failure of "shock therapies" provided new material for analysis and helped to focus old ideas.

Over the last nine years, the JEI has also published a number of articles dealing with the unsuccessful efforts of economists to incorporate institutions and cumulative causation into neoclassical analysis. The development of the "New Institutional Economics," transaction cost analysis, and the increased importance of path dependence in standard economic thought have all involved efforts to make neoclassical analysis consistent with the recognition that there are inherited patterns of behavior that organize economic activity in firms, families, and nations. However, continued commitment to the neoclassical use of a "rational" and independent individual as the unit of analysis has resulted in serious inconsistencies and problems in this analysis. One of the last articles published during my editorship [Slater and Spencer 2000] on "The Uncertain Foundations of Transaction Costs Economics" is part of an ongoing series of explorations of these inconsistencies. One can hope that, out of these criticisms, there wi ll develop a richer institutional economics that will draw upon the original institutionalist ideas of the importance of culture, cumulative causation, and complexly rational, encultured, and creative individuals in the process of socioeconomic change. As the work of the last nine years indicates, however, there remains a wide gap between "neoclassical institutionalism" and the institutionalism to which the JEI is dedicated.

Although the work published in the JEI over the last nine years has been less introspective about our own intellectual tradition, the work of past institutional economists has not been ignored. The trend has been toward less emphasis on the effort to define a formal definition of the recurring dichotomy between past binding human behavior and the efforts of those same humans to devise new and advantageous ways of addressing human problems. This dichotomy in human affairs remains central to institutionalist understanding but has been used in applied ways, rather than in theoretical debate. The other trend among those who study our own intellectual past has been to understand the context and underpinnings of early institutionalist work [Albert and Ramstad 1997, 1998, for example]. This is part of a larger and very welcome trend of thorough reexamination of institutional economics during the interwar years, a time when many of the fundamental ideas of this tradition were dominant among economists [Rutherford 20 00].

"Postmodernism" and the loss of faith in simple scientific truth have worked their ways through many academic disciplines over the last 10 or more years. There has been a growing and desirable understanding that our perceptions of the world, in both its natural and its humanly affected and organized state, are always arrived at through lenses that are specific to the time and position of the observer. …

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