January 4, 2013 4:09PM

The AEA’s Annual Meeting: plus ça change

The American Economics Association, the granddaddy and most prestigious of professional economic organizations, opens its annual meeting in San Diego today. Even though not all of its 18,000+ members will show, it will certainly be a big affair.

One of the AEA’s founders was Prof. Richard T. Ely, an ardent Christian Socialist and prominent faculty member of The Johns Hopkins University. Ely and five other “young rebels,” as Ely describes them in his autobiography Ground Under Our Feet, were fresh from graduate studies in Germany when they founded the AEA in 1885. The young rebels had studied at the feet of the leaders of the German historical school of economics, who were at war—the great Methodenstreit—with members of the Austrian school of economics and others who harbored laissez‐​faire attitudes.

The AEA’s founding fathers saw themselves as social reformers. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Prof. Ely described the primary motivation for the founding of the AEA as “a protest against the system of laissez faire, as expounded by the writers of the older ‘orthodox’ American school of economics.”

While they would probably frown on what their baby has become, Prof. Ely and the other rebels would certainly rejoice at the fact that their ideas are now en vogue in American political culture.