On second thought, the inquiry sparked John Eatwell's interest. At first he told the managing director of Macmillan Publishers Ltd. at a barbecue in 1982 that a dictionary of economics would be boring, a list of definitions.
``I'd said, `That's a total waste of time, and it's OK for school kids or first-year undergraduates, but not an exciting project,''' recalls the Cambridge University economics professor.
Almost six years and 4.3 million words later, Professor Eatwell and his co-editors, Murray Milgate and Peter Newman, have produced the four-volume ``The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics,'' which draws on the world's leading economists, historians, philosophers, statisticians, and mathematicians. Eleven winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics wrote for the books. Professor Milgate teaches at Harvard University, and Professor Newman teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
Besides providing a tremendous reference base for libraries, schools, and other institutions, the New Palgrave will give the field of economics ``a new solidarity, and perhaps a new confidence,'' Eatwell surmises, as well as a perspective. The Stockton Press, the New York-based subsidiary of the British company Macmillan, publishes the work and sells it for $650.
``There's been a tendency in recent years to see economics as the theorem I proved yesterday, and to be overly concerned with the current ideas and not with the problem of how ideas developed,'' Eatwell observes. ``That's not to say that the New Palgrave isn't absolutely up to date and state-of-the-art, but it does present economics in a broader perspective.''
Entries in the volumes cover everything from the pillars of economics, such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx, to current hot topics, like the mathematical technique game theory and arbitrage. Eatwell hopes some humor comes through in the dictionary, although on the ``Free lunch'' entry, the three lost their nerve.
``We were just going to say, `There ain't no such thing,' and leave it at that,'' he says. ``But as you see, we have a serious entry. It just means you can't get anything for nothing.''
As they worked on the project, Eatwell, Milgate, and Newman were surprised that in the contentious and broad subject of economics, people developed professional solidarity. According to the prospectus for the New Palgrave, 9 out of 10 economists who have ever lived are alive today.
``Monetarists talked to Marxists whom they hadn't spoken to for years to find out what they were doing for Palgrave,'' Eatwell says. The editors let all the contributors say what they thought about their favorite topics. ``So everyone had his or her day in court, but they also knew that everyone else was having the same opportunity and the best people in the field were writing on their topics.''
The first Palgrave, R.H. Inglis Palgrave's ``Dictionary of Political Economy,'' was published by Macmillan in three volumes from 1894 to 1899. ``That was the only really good encyclopedia of economics there ever was,'' Eatwell says, for two reasons: the strong biographical coverage and the contributors.
``The more important reason was that the very best people of the day wrote vigorous articles about where economics was going, what they thought economics was about, and what their new discoveries were,'' Eatwell says. ``It was because of the vigor and excellence of those essays that the old Palgrave lasted for about 50 years as a viable working book.''
For example, in a 1948 essay on utility analysis and risk, the young Milton Friedman cited essays from Palgrave as part of the academic references.
``After that, it was really out of date, but in the New Palgrave we've got about 40 essays held over, some of them because they are the best statements, and some because there was no need to update,'' Eatwell continues.
The New Palgrave, with its 1,261 subject entries and 655 biographies, covers the foundations of modern economics. The biographies are of people who are no longer alive or who reached the age of 70 by the end of 1985. The entries from 927 contributors have cross-references and appendixes. Some entries approach 20,000 words, with the one on monetarist John Maynard Keynes one of the longest.
The three editors began work after Macmillan accepted Eatwell's proposal in 1982. The overall costs ended up being about $1.5 million. One of the first tasks for the editors was generating a headword, or entry, list.
Then they started drawing up a core list of potential contributors, which covered the top 100 economists as they saw them. ``We said very, very firmly that we wanted them to say what they thought, and we didn't want surveys,'' Eatwell explains. ``We also said they could do any other topic they wanted,'' he says.
It helped in getting younger members of the profession to realize that writing for the New Palgrave would enhance their careers when 81 of the more 100 senior economists responded positively.
One challenge was thinking of someone who had the breadth in economics, history, and philosophy to write on Karl Marx, which Belgian economist Ernest Mandel did. ``He sent it in with a little note saying, `My apologies for this entry - you must remember that English is my fourth language,''' Eatwell recalls.
After the initial positive response, the editors began corresponding and working with another 800 or so economists, all the while teaching their courses. ``The three of us read the whole thing. Every article traveled a triangular route between Baltimore; Cambridge, England; and Cambridge, Mass.,'' Eatwell says.
With the project behind him, he says he will write another book, on economic theory, and help Britain's Labour Party reassess its economic policy. He is Neil Kinnock's economic adviser.