Blaming the Professors, Part II: Kristof's Confused Anti-Intellectualism

-- 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 too liberal).

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 political narrative.

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.

And 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.

Every 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.

Viewed 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 ignorant slander.

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!"

For 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?  Anyone?  Anyone?

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 affiliations?

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 play it.

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.

Consider the 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.

The "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.

More 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 truth.

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.

Holding up 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.