American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 2015, 105(5): 89–93
Politics does not lead to a broadly shared con-
sensus. It has to yield a decision, whether or not
a consensus prevails. As a result, political insti-
tutions create incentives for participants to exag-
gerate disagreements between factions. Words
that are evocative and ambiguous better serve
factional interests than words that are analytical
Science is a process that does lead to a broadly
shared consensus. It is arguably the only social
process that does. Consensus forms around the-
oretical and empirical statements that are true.
Tight links between words from natural lan-
guage and symbols from the formal language of
mathematics encourage the use of words that are
analytical and precise.
For the last two decades, growth theory has
made no scientific progress toward a consensus.
The challenge is how to model the scale effects
introduced by nonrival ideas. Mobile telephony
is the update to the pin factory, the demonstra-
tion that scale effects are too important to ignore.
To accommodate them, many growth theorists
have embraced monopolistic competition, but
an influential group of traditionalists continues
to support price taking with external increas-
ing returns. The question posed here is why the
methods of science have failed to resolve the
disagreement between these two groups.
Economists usually stick to science. Robert
(1956) was engaged in science when he
developed his mathematical theory of growth.
But they can get drawn into academic politics.
(1956) was engaged in academic
Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth
* Stern School of Business, New York University, 44 W.
4th St, New York, NY 10012
). An appendix with supporting materials is available
from the author’s website, paulromer.net, and from the web-
site for this article. Support for this work was provided by
the Rockefeller Foundation. .
the article page for additional materials and author disclo-
politics when she waged her campaign against
capital and the aggregate production function.
Academic politics, like any other type of pol-
itics, is better served by words that are evocative
and ambiguous, but if an argument is transpar-
ently political, economists interested in science
will simply ignore it. The style that I am calling
mathiness lets academic politics masquerade
as science. Like mathematical theory, mathi-
ness uses a mixture of words and symbols, but
instead of making tight links, it leaves ample
room for slippage between statements in natu-
ral versus formal language and between state-
ments with theoretical as opposed to empirical
(1956) mathematical theory of
growth mapped the word “capital” onto a vari-
able in his mathematical equations, and onto
both data from national income accounts and
objects like machines or structures that some-
one could observe directly. The tight connection
between the word and the equations gave the
word a precise meaning that facilitated equally
tight connections between theoretical and empir-
ical claims. Gary Becker’s
theory of wages gave the words “human capital”
the same precision and established the same two
types of tight connection—between words and
math and between theory and evidence. In this
case as well, the relevant evidence ranged from
aggregate data to formal microeconomic data to
In contrast, McGrattan and Prescott
give a label—location—to their proposed new
input in production, but the mathiness that they
present does not provide the microeconomic
foundation needed to give the label meaning.
The authors chose a word that had already
been given a precise meaning by mathemati-
cal theories of product differentiation and eco-
nomic geography, but their formal equations are
completely different, so neither of those mean-
ings carries over.
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The mathiness in their paper also offers lit-
tle guidance about the connections between its
theoretical and empirical statements. The quan-
tity of location has no unit of measurement. The
term does not refer to anything a person could
observe. In a striking
(but instructive) use of
slippage between theoretical and the empirical
claims, the authors assert, with no explanation,
that the national supply of location is propor-
tional to the number of residents. This raises
questions that the equations of the model do not
address. If the dependency ratio and population
increase, holding the number of working age
adults and the supply of labor constant, what
mechanism leads to an increase in output?
McGrattan and Prescott
(2010) is one of sev-
eral papers by traditionalists that use mathiness
to campaign for price-taking models of growth.
The natural inference is that their use of mathi-
ness signals a shift from science to academic
politics, presumably because they were losing
the scientific debate. If so, the paralysis and
polarization in the theory of growth is not sign
of a problem with science. It is the expected out-
come in politics.
If mathiness were used infrequently to
slow convergence to a new scientific consen-
sus, it would do localized, temporary damage.
Unfortunately, the market for lemons tells us
that as the quantity increases, mathiness could
do permanent damage because it takes costly
effort to distinguish mathiness from mathemat-
The market for mathematical theory can sur-
vive a few lemon articles filled with mathiness.
Readers will put a small discount on any article
with mathematical symbols, but will still find
it worth their while to work through and verify
that the formal arguments are correct, that the
connection between the symbols and the words
is tight, and that the theoretical concepts have
implications for measurement and observation.
But after readers have been disappointed too
often by mathiness that wastes their time, they
will stop taking seriously any paper that contains
mathematical symbols. In response, authors will
stop doing the hard work that it takes to supply
real mathematical theory. If no one is putting in
the work to distinguish between mathiness and
mathematical theory, why not cut a few corners
and take advantage of the slippage that mathi-
ness allows? The market for mathematical the-
ory will collapse. Only mathiness will be left. It
will be worth little, but cheap to produce, so it
might survive as entertainment.
Economists have a collective stake in flushing
mathiness out into the open. We will make faster
scientific progress if we can continue to rely on
the clarity and precision that math brings to our
shared vocabulary, and if, in our analysis of data
and observations, we keep using and refining the
powerful abstractions that mathematical theory
highlights—abstractions like physical capital,
human capital, and nonrivalry.
I. Scale Effects
In 1970, there were zero mobile phones.
Today, there are more than 6 billion. This is the
kind of development that a theory of growth
should help us understand.
Let q stand for individual consumption of
mobile phone services. For a
∈ [0, 1], let
= D(q) = q
be the inverse individ-
ual demand curve with all-other-goods as
numeraire. Let N denote the number of people in
the market. Once the design for a mobile phone
exists, let the inverse supply curve for an aggre-
gate quantity Q
= qN take the form p = S(Q)
∈ [0, ∞].
If the price and quantity of mobile phones are
determined by equating D
(q) = m × S(Nq), so
≥ 1 captures any markup of price rela-
tive to marginal cost, the surplus S created by the
discovery of mobile telephony takes the form
= C(a, b, m) × N
(a, b, m) is a messy algebraic expres-
sion. Surplus scales as N to a power between a
and 1 . If b
= 0, so that the supply curve for the
devices is horizontal, surplus scales linearly in
. If, in addition, a
, the expression for sur-
plus simplifies to
2m − 1
With these parameters, a tax or a monopoly
markup that increases m from 1 to 2 causes S to
change by the factor 0.75 . An increase in N from
something like 10
people in a village to 10
people in a connected global market causes S to
change by the factor 10
Effects this big tend to focus the mind.
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MATHINESS IN THE THEORY OF ECONOMIC GROWTH
II. The Fork in Growth Theory
The traditional way to include a scale effect
was proposed by Marshall
(1890). One writes
the production of telephone services at each
of a large number of firms in an industry as
(X ) f (x) , where the list x contains the inputs
that the firm controls and the list X has inputs
for the entire industry. One obvious problem
with this approach is that it offers no basis for
determining the extent is of the spillover bene-
fits from the term g
(X ) . Do they require face-to-
face interaction? Production in the same city, the
same country, or anywhere?
If we split x
= (a, z) into a nonrival input a
and rival inputs z, a standard replication argu-
ment implies that f must be homogeneous of
degree 1 in the rival inputs z . Euler’s theorem
then implies that the value of output equals the
compensation paid to the rival inputs z . In a full
equilibrium analysis, anything that looks like
producer surplus or “Marshallian rent” is in fact
part of the compensation paid to the rival inputs.
It follows that there can be no nonrival input
that the firm can use yet exclude other firms
from using. Production for an individual firm
must take the form A f
(z) where A is both non-
rival and fully nonexcludable, hence a public
I started by my work on growth using price
taking and external increasing returns, but
switched to monopolistic competition because
it allows for the possibility that ideas can be at
least partially excludable. Partial excludability
offers a much more precise way to think about
spillovers. Nonrivalry, which is logically inde-
pendent, is the defining characteristic of an idea
and the source of the scale effects that are cen-
tral to any plausible explanation of recent expe-
rience with mobile telephony or more generally,
of the broad sweep of human history
In models that allow for partial excludability
of nonrival goods, ideas need not be treated as
pure public goods. In these models, firms have
an incentive to discover a new idea like a mobile
(Romer 1990) or to encourage interna-
tional diffusion of such an idea once it exists
(Romer 1994). In such models, one can ask why
some valuable nonrival ideas diffuse much more
slowly than mobile telephony and how policy
can influence the rate of diffusion by changing
the incentives that firms face.
As many growth theorists followed trade
theorists and explored aggregate models with
monopolistic competition, the traditionalists
who worked on models with a microeconomic
foundation maintained their commitment to price
taking and adhered to the restriction of 0 percent
excludability of ideas required for Marshallian
external increasing returns. Perhaps because of
unresolved questions about the extent of spill-
overs, attention turned to models of idea flows
that require face-to-face interaction. Because
incentives in these models motivate neither
discovery nor diffusion, agents exchange ideas
in the same way that gas molecules exchange
energy—involuntarily, through random encoun-
ters. Given the sharp limits imposed by the
mathematics of their formal framework, it is no
surprise that traditionalists were attracted to the
extra degrees of freedom that come from letting
the words slip free of the math.
III. Examples of Mathiness
McGrattan and Prescott
loose links between a word with no meaning
and new mathematical results. The mathiness
in “Perfectly Competitive Innovation”
and Levine 2008
) takes the adjectives from
the title of the paper, which have a well estab-
lished, tight connection to existing mathemati-
cal results, and links them to a very different set
of mathematical results. In an initial period, the
innovator in their model is a monopolist, the sole
supplier of a newly developed good. The authors
force the monopolist to take a specific price for
its own good as given by imposing price taking
as an assumption about behavior.
In addition to using words that do not align
with their formal model, Boldrin and Levine
(2008) make broad verbal claims that are discon-
nected from any formal analysis. For example,
they claim that the argument based on Euler’s
theorem does not apply because price equals
marginal cost only in the absence of capacity
constraints. Robert Lucas uses the same kind of
untethered verbal claim to dismiss any role for
books or blueprints in a model of ideas: “Some
knowledge can be ‘embodied’ in books, blue-
prints, machines, and other kinds of physical
capital, and we know how to introduce capital
into a growth model, but we also know that
doing so does not by itself provide an engine
of sustained growth.”
(Lucas 2009, p.6). In
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each case, well-known models show that these
verbal claims are false. Any two-sector growth
model will show how Marshall’s style of partial
equilibrium analysis leads Boldrin and Levine
astray. Any endogenous growth model with an
expanding variety of capital goods or a ladder
of capital goods of improving quality serves as a
counter-example to the result that Lucas claims
that we know.
In Lucas and Moll
(2014), the mathiness
involves both words that are disconnected from
the formal results and a mathematical model that
is not well specified. The baseline model in their
paper relies on an assumption P that invokes a
distribution for the initial stock of knowledge
across workers that is unbounded, with a fat
Pareto tail. Given this assumption, Lucas and
Moll show that the diffusion of knowledge from
random encounters between workers generates
a growth rate g
[P](t) that converges to γ > 0 as
goes to infinity.
Assumption P is hard to justify because it
requires that at time zero, someone is already
using every productive technology that will ever
be used at any future date. So the authors offer
“an alternative interpretation that we argue is
observationally equivalent: knowledge at time 0
is bounded but new knowledge arrives at arbi-
trarily low frequency.”
(Lucas and Moll 2014,
). In this alternative, there is a collection of
economies that all start with an assumption B
(for bounded initial knowledge.) By itself, this
assumption implies that the growth rate goes
to zero as everyone learns all there is to know.
However, new knowledge, drawn from a distri-
bution with a Pareto tail, is injected at the rate
so a B economy eventually turns into a P econ-
omy. As the arrival rate
β gets arbitrarily low,
an arbitrarily long period of time has to elapse
before the switch from B to P takes place.
the online Appendix for details.
For a given value of
β > 0, let β : B ⇒ P
denote a specific economy from this collection.
Any observation on the growth rate has to take
place at a finite date T. If T is large enough,
[P](T ) will be close to γ, but g[β : B ⇒ P](T )
will be arbitrarily close to 0 for an arbitrarily
low arrival rate
β. This means that any set of
observations on growth rates will show that the
economy is observably different from any
β : B ⇒ P with a low enough value
β. They are not observationally equivalent in
any conventional sense.
The mathiness here involves more than a
nonstandard interpretation of the phrase “obser-
vationally equivalent.” The underlying formal
result is that calculating the double limit in one
[β : B ⇒ P]) yields one
γ , which is also the limiting growth rate
in the P economy. However, calculating it in
the other order, lim
[β : B ⇒ P]),
gives a different answer, 0. Lucas and Moll
(2014) use the first calculation to justify their
claim about observational equivalence. An argu-
ment that takes the math seriously would note
that the double limit does not exist and would
caution against trying to give an interpretation to
the value calculated using one order or the other.
IV. A New Equilibrium in the Market for
As is noted in an addendum, Lucas
contains a flaw in a proof. The proof requires that
be less than 1. The same page has an
γ, γ = α
γ + δ
, and because α, γ,
δ are all positive, it implies that
than 1. Anyone who does math knows that it is
distressingly easy to make an oversight like this.
It is not a sign of mathiness by the author. But
the fact that this oversight was not picked up at
the working paper stage or in the process leading
up to publication may tell us something about
the new equilibrium in economics. Neither col-
leagues who read working papers, nor review-
ers, nor journal editors, are paying attention to
After reading their working paper, I told
Lucas and Moll about the discontinuity in the
limit and the problem it posed for their claim
about observational equivalence. They left their
limit argument in the paper without noting
the discontinuity and the Journal of Political
published it this way. This may reflect
a judgment by the authors and the editors that at
least in the theory of growth, we are already in a
new equilibrium in which readers expect mathi-
ness and accept it.
One final bit of evidence comes from Piketty
(2014), who cite a result from a
growth model: with a fixed saving rate, when the
growth rate falls by one-half, the ratio of wealth
to income doubles. They note that their formula
/Y = s/g assumes that national income
and the saving rate s are both measured net of
VOL. 105 NO. 5
MATHINESS IN THE THEORY OF ECONOMIC GROWTH
depreciation. They observe that the formula has
to be modified to W
/Y = s/(g + δ), with a
δ, when it is stated in terms of
the gross saving rate and gross national income.
From Krusell and Smith
(2014), I learned
more about this calculation. If the growth rate
falls and the net saving rate remains constant,
the gross saving rate has to increase. For exam-
ple, with a fixed net saving rate of 10 percent
and a depreciation rate of 3 percent, a reduction
in the growth rate from 3 percent to 1.5 percent
implies an increase in the gross saving rate from
18 percent to 25 percent. This means that the
/(g + δ) increases by a factor 1.33
because of the direct effect of the fall in g and by
a factor 1.38 because of the induced change in s .
A third factor, equal to 1.09 , arises because the
fall in g also increases the ratio of gross income
to net income. These three factors, which when
multiplied equal 2, decompose the change in
/Y calculated in net terms into equivalent
changes for a model with variables measured in
Piketty and Zucman
(2014) present their data
and empirical analysis with admirable clarity
and precision. In choosing to present the theory
in less detail, they too may have responded to
the expectations in the new equilibrium: empir-
ical work is science; theory is entertainment.
Presenting a model is like doing a card trick.
Everybody knows that there will be some sleight
of hand. There is no intent to deceive because
no one takes it seriously. Perhaps our norms will
soon be like those in professional magic; it will
be impolite, perhaps even an ethical breach, to
reveal how someone’s trick works.
When I learned mathematical economics, a
different equilibrium prevailed. Not universally,
but much more so than today, when economic
theorists used math to explore abstractions,
it was a point of pride to do so with clarity,
precision, and rigor. Then too, a faction like
Robinson’s that risked losing a battle might
resort to mathiness as a last-ditch defense, but
doing so carried a risk. Reputations suffered.
If we have already reached the lemons market
equilibrium where only mathiness is on offer,
future generations of economists will suffer.
After all, how would Piketty and Zucman have
organized their look at history without access
to the abstraction we know as capital? Where
would we be now if Robert Solow’s math had
been swamped by Joan Robinson’s mathiness?
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Capital: A Theoretical Analysis.” Journal of
Boldrin, Michele, and David K. Levine.
“Perfectly Competitive Innovation.” Journal of
Jones, Charles I., and Paul M. Romer.
New Kaldor Facts: Ideas, Institutions, Popula-
tion, and Human Capital.” American Economic
Krusell, Per, and Anthony A. Smith.
“Is Piketty’s Second Law of Capitalism
Lucas, Jr. Robert E.
2009. “Ideas and Growth.”
Lucas, Jr., Robert E., and Benjamin Moll.
“Knowledge Growth and the Allocation of
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McGrattan, Ellen R., and Edward C. Prescott.
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