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  • A Tribute to George Perry and William Brainard
  • Robert J. Gordon

Younger readers of this volume may not appreciate how creative was the invention of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, how much it changed the way applied economics is communicated, and how magic has been its appeal to economists young and old, the novices and the famous, over its many years of operation. Within ten years of its creation, it had become one of the four most circulated academic journals in economics.

The Brookings Papers started at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, 1970, with my first paper on the Phillips curve,1 which was discussed by none other than George Perry and Robert Solow. Right from the start, the Brookings Papers was the place to go to for up-to-date analysis of the macroeconomic puzzles of the day.

A scorecard of frequent contributors to the Brookings Papers over the years would include many of the great and famous economists of our day: not just Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, but other luminaries including Olivier Blanchard, Rudiger Dornbusch, Stanley Fischer, Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs, and Lawrence Summers, not to mention the Nobel Prize contingent of George Akerlof, Franco Modigliani, Edmund Phelps, Robert Solow, and James Tobin. It is a supreme tribute to Perry and Brainard— and to Arthur Okun, the journal's cofounder with Perry—that, when they asked, these people came, whether they were famous then or would become so only later. They came because they appreciated the unique format and culture that is the Brookings Papers. [End Page 1]

Part of that culture was in evidence at the conference dinner for this volume, namely, the after-dinner speakers, usually a surprise "mystery speaker." The selection of these speakers was always bipartisan. Often they were Brookings Panel alumni who had braved the wars of inside-the-administration Washington politics. Distinguished former and even current public officials such as Summers, Gregory Mankiw, and John Taylor were willing to go beyond cheerleading for their particular administration to discuss honestly some of the lessons they had learned from their mistakes—if not their policy mistakes, then at least their media mistakes. Mankiw's entanglement in the issue of whether flipping hamburgers could be deemed a manufacturing activity is a memorable example.

It is worth recalling the original concept of the Brookings Papers. The publishing environment for the economics of policy analysis was a wasteland in the 1960s. Authors of scholarly papers had only two choices: refereed journals that often rejected policy-oriented papers as ephemeral, and conference volumes that took three years to be published and were often instantly obsolete. The genius of Okun and Perry was to create a new vision. No longer would authors wait three years for their papers to appear in print—and remember that print was "it," the only way to communicate three decades before the invention of the Internet. Back in 1970 you couldn't Google a topic. You couldn't look up an NBER working paper in print, much less on the Web. The only way one kept up to date was by monitoring journals and conference volumes.

What an idea Okun and Perry had! Three-year publication lags were replaced by three months, and they really pulled it off. They also took the risk of starting with a small group of young people, most not even yet tenured, to provide sophisticated analysis of particular sectors of the economy.

The Brookings Papers' conception was so compelling that it was very soon duplicated. The first to copy it was the Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series in 1973. Later came the International Seminar on Macroeconomics at the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1978, and then the NBER Macroeconomics Annual and Europe's Economic Policy series in the mid-1980s.

A word about the Carnegie-Rochester series. In the 1970s and 1980s the evolution of macroeconomics was disrupted by the development of the "fooling model" of Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent and then the real business cycle model of Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott. Twenty [End Page 2] years ago Robert Hall brilliantly coined the metaphor of "freshwater versus saltwater" economics to describe this...


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