-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
Two days ago, I wrote a Dorf on Law post in response to a NYT op-ed column
by Nicholas Kristof. Kristof, writing in last Sundays' "Review"
section, argued that professors have made themselves irrelevant to the
great public debates, by becoming too specialized and obscure (and
none-too-subtly suggesting, as I will discuss below, that academics are
I argued in response that Kristof is simply
wrong to suggest that the media and political worlds are starving for
enlightened guidance from an indifferent academy. What Kristof
identifies as a matter of under-supply (not enough professors trying to
influence the public discussion) is in fact a matter of inadequate
demand on two fronts: people in the media who don't know and don't care
to find out if there are actual experts available to weigh in on
important topics (with media outlets preferring instead to propagate an
incestuous conversation among the usual roster of generalist pundits),
and a political culture that is not the least bit interested in hearing
from experts whose points of view do not fit neatly into the established
My post on Thursday focused on
the media and political responses to the debt ceiling, precisely because
that is the special case in which the number of people with published
academic expertise is quite low: exactly two, in fact. (To be clear,
there are a few papers that have been published about ancillary
questions regarding the debt ceiling. But the Buchanan-Dorf papers are
the only ones that have directly addressed the full range of questions
that matter for the public debate.) That the top media and virtually
all politicians failed to rely on those experts could not be excused by
the argument that there were too many good choices.
that shows precisely why Kristof's broader argument is so weak. On
every other policy topic, there are literally hundreds (if not
thousands) of qualified academics clamoring to be heard. I am not
surprised when, say, my writing about Social Security's non-problems, or
about the benefits of increasing the national debt, or in favor of
raising taxes on the rich is not picked up excitedly by the media and
politicians. I am momentarily disappointed, of course, but I understand
that there is a more than adequate supply of people who are also
writing about these subjects, and there are even enough who are taking
the relatively counter-intuitive positions that I take.
university of which I am aware hires full-time media consultants to
promote the work of its professors. Getting even one mention in a top
newspaper leads to congratulatory emails from colleagues and
administrators. The environment is fiercely competitive, such that it is more than a little exasperating
to be told by Kristof -- a guy who is famous because he has been given
two automatic slots per week on the world's most influential media real
estate -- that we are not trying hard enough.
kindly, Kristof's column could be read as saying: "Professors, I admit
that I'm ignorant! Please help me reduce how often I embarrass
myself." Viewed less kindly, however, one cannot help but suspect that
Kristof is fully aware that there is no lack of input being offered by
professors from American universities. If so, then what could be the
real point of his column?
The answer, I think, comes in two parts. First, as one of the letters to the editor of the Times
put it: "This is a high-minded, left-leaning form of
anti-intellectualism." (Of course, wouldn't you know it, the author of
that letter is a professor of poli sci and humanities at a liberal arts
college. That's just what we would expect him to say!) To a large
degree, Kristof is simply reviving the typical rant against the ivory
tower, acting as if research that is not immediately translatable into
public debates is per se worthless. He wrings his hands and says
that he hates to criticize, but he obviously is excited to join in the
But if Kristof is a liberal (and most
evidence suggests that he can be reasonably described as left of
center), then what is the point of joining in what is usually the tired
right-wing pastime of professor-bashing? The second part of the answer,
therefore, has to be able to explain why a liberal would attack a group
of people whom he thinks are also liberal. Kristof is, I think, saying
that he finds it inconvenient to try to rely on professors in public
policy debates when so much of the work in academia is supportive of
liberal arguments. "How can I call you guys independent experts, when
so many of you say liberal things?"
Putting it together,
Kristof's argument thus becomes: "Hey professors, you're too obscure and
abstract and wasting everyone's time. Oh, and when I can understand
what you say, you don't agree with Republicans enough!"
example, Kristof goes to the favorite whipping boy of the anti-academic
crowd, sociology, as follows: "Many academic disciplines also reduce
their influence by neglecting
political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so
many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is
instinctively dismissed by the right." But the "hard" sciences are
central to so many national issues, too, and they are also instinctively
dismissed by the right. Climate change, evolution, epidemiology?
Academics (including sociologists)
would love to study the public health effects of firearms, but the right
has prevented them from even gathering the necessary data to engage in
the research. Similarly, gathering data on high-end incomes has been
stymied for decades by right-wing politicians, fearful of what the
evidence will reveal.
Kristof appears to be saying that
the way to assess the health of an academic field is to ask whether its
practitioners line up with the current partisan make-up of the country.
When did that become a meaningful criterion for intellectual value?
Should biology departments also be concerned about political
On some levels, I ought to have been a
perfect audience for a column like Kristof's. After finishing a Ph.D.
in economics from a top university, I ended up moving into law, in large
part because of many of the problems that Kristof identifies: narrowing
areas of specialization, lack of concern for even minimally competent
writing, disdain for the practical over the abstract and theoretical,
and intolerance of dissent (in Kristof's well-chosen words: "Rebels are
too often crushed or driven away.")
Yet we quickly
discover that economics is one of the fields that Kristof still admires,
because it "is a rare academic field with a significant Republican
presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world
debates." He salivates over the "empiricism and rigor" of the field,
saying that the importance of economics in public debates is a direct
result of those supposed qualities.
But the existence of
conservative economists, along with liberal economists, is hardly proof
that economics is healthy as an academic discipline. The core
requirements to being an economist in good standing -- the very things
that Kristof otherwise decries, such as specialization and obsession
with quantification -- are inherently conservative, in the sense that
one must build one's models on assumptions (such as the insane idea that
people are hyper-rational actors) that are preordained to lead to
Republican-friendly results. Attempts to deviate from those assumptions
are only minimally tolerated, and only after a person (such as Paul
Krugman) has proved that he can play the game the way the conservatives
To the extent that "empiricism and rigor"
should matter in economics, the liberals win in a landslide. When the
very high-profile Romney economic advisors in 2012 tried to defend the
empirically indefensible claims by their campaign about Romney's tax
proposals, they talked about "six studies" that supposedly proved that Romney's plan could work.
It turned out that four of the six "studies" were not studies at all,
but simply an op-ed and some online articles. But even the actual
"studies" belied what Kristof still believes to be true: The silly idea
that economics as a field converges on what become accepted "truths" by
engaging in rigorous, empirical research.
major policy debates of the past several years. Would high deficits
post-2008 cause interest rates to spike upward? Conservative economists
loudly said that they would. Liberals said no. In reality, rates hit
historic lows. Would the Federal Reserve's aggressive actions to save
the economy cause inflation to rise out of control? Conservatives were
absolutely certain that it would, liberals just as certain that it would
not. In reality, inflation has dropped so low that we (and especially
Europe) are in danger of entering a disastrous deflationary spiral.
"science" of economics told us that austerity could be expansionary,
supposedly supported by studies by a Harvard economics professor. Those
studies turned out to be based on selective empiricism, and more
importantly, they were quickly proved utterly false. Another economics
paper told us that there is a 90% debt-to-GDP limit, above which an
economy would quickly be destroyed. That turned out to be wrong, not
just in failing to think about the direction of causality (which is one
of the things that intellectual rigor would presumably require), but
because the study was based on bad computer coding.
to the point, none of these embarrassments have at all chastened the
right side of the aisle in economics. None of the economists in
question have revised, or even questioned, their views. Writing for lay
audiences, they continue to trot out the silliest stuff as if it is
science. (The controversy last week
regarding the report on the "2.5 million lost jobs from Obamacare" is
just the latest example.) And when the facts are against them, they
simply resort to insisting that their theories embody the received
In short, if economics were truly a
rigorous, empirically-driven science, economics departments would
quickly begin to look like Kristof's vision of sociology departments --
not because they would be "neglecting
political diversity," but because the rubber has now hit the road on
nearly every major economic policy question, and the conservative side
has lost every time. His belief that the "Republican presence" in
economics "helps tether economic debates to real-world debates" is
simply wrong. The Republican presence in economics tethers real-world
debates to non-real-world wishful thinking.
economics as a model for other academic fields is thus a scary thought.
Even more scary is the sight of a nominally liberal pundit trashing
academics for failing to be sufficiently sensitive to the wishes of
people who simply will not accept critical thinking.