CRF Blog

Seminal Ideas in Economics: Secrets and agents

by David De La Torre

In Secrets and agents, the first in its series on seminal ideas in economics, The Economist looks at George Akerlof’s 1970 paper “The Market for Lemons.”

IN 2007 the state of Washington introduced a new rule aimed at making the labour market fairer: firms were banned from checking job applicants’ credit scores. Campaigners celebrated the new law as a step towards equality — an applicant with a low credit score is much more likely to be poor, black or young. Since then, ten other states have followed suit. But when Robert Clifford and Daniel Shoag, two economists, recently studied the bans, they found that the laws left blacks and the young with fewer jobs, not more.

Before 1970, economists would not have found much in their discipline to help them mull this puzzle. Indeed, they did not think very hard about the role of information at all. In the labour market, for example, the textbooks mostly assumed that employers know the productivity of their workers — or potential workers — and, thanks to competition, pay them for exactly the value of what they produce.

jjYou might think that research upending that conclusion would immediately be celebrated as an important breakthrough. Yet when, in the late 1960s, George Akerlof wrote “The Market for Lemons”, which did just that, and later won its author a Nobel prize, the paper was rejected by three leading journals. [more]