Monday, August 11, 2014

Gerard Debreu's dishonorable path to the Nobel Prize

It had been intuitively obvious since Adam Smith that, in an economic system, everything depends on everything else, and thought possible, since Leon Walras, to calculate and measure such a system – in other words, to produce a blueprint to test against the world. But proving that such a coherence is possible in the first place in a world of many competing individuals was the necessary first step to describing it in detail. ...

For thirty years the official story of general equilibrium went like this: Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu, working independently at first, then joining forces, proved that Adam Smith was right, and the rest is history. ...

It was some time in the 1970s that [economist and historian of economic thought Roy] Weintraub first became aware that [Lionel] McKenzie, by then of the University of Rochester, had in the early 1950s proved the same result as had Arrow and Debreu, and slightly earlier at that, but somehow had failed to share in the enormous credit assigned or their famous result. ...

Debreu arrived from Paris in 1950, deeply trained in Bourbakist mathematics and somewhat insulated from the emphasis on planning methods that dominated Cowles at the time. He and Arrow began working on the equilibrium proof separately; when learning of each other’s work, they threw their lots in together and presented their results at the 1952 meetings of the Econometric Society, in Chicago – a day after McKenzie had talked about his work. Their paper, “Existence of an Equilibrium for a Competitive Economy,” appeared in Econometrica eighteen months later, more general than that of McKenzie, but three months after his. ...

Not long after, McKenzie would begin one of the greatest second acts in twentieth-century economics. Unable to get a job at a top-five university (Princeton at least awarded him his Ph.D. on the basis of his journal articles), he signed on at the University of Rochester in 1957 on the strength of a promise that he could build a department. ... And so McKenzie did. ... From modest beginnings, Rochester went on to become one of the most successful training grounds for young economists in the world...

[Weintraub] noticed that the principals had been somewhat reluctant to discuss the details surrounding their respective proofs. He badgered them, gradually learned that Debreu had attended McKenzie’s session and hadn’t told Arrow about it. ...

Further details had emerged, including an astonishing fact: the anonymous referee, who bottled UP McKenzie’s submission to Econometrica for a critical time, while Arrow and Debreu tidied up their proof, was none other than Debreu himself; and Debreu hadn’t disclosed his conflict of interest to the editor, Robert Solow. Debreu’s conduct was thus revealed as having been dishonorable.
--David Warsh, Economic Principals, on a reminder to act honorably when refereeing papers "anonymously"


UPDATE: Debreu did not in fact delay his referee report.