Economists are special, but what about Palestinians and American blacks?

I’ve got the post-Thanksgiving flu. I know which toddlers are guilty of infecting me, and which aunts and uncles are responsible for this egregious assault on my happiness. Revenge will be sweet.

I’d like to get to Warren’s smackdown of my reparations proposal and also to Matthew’s thoughts on justified violence against the state (which were indirectly related to my own post on Ferguson), but first I’ve got to get to two interesting topics that have piqued my interest.

The first is Irfan Khawaja’s recent critique over at Policy of Truth of Jason Brennan’s new book on voting. As usual, Khawaja brings up a number of great points (too many, actually, for a lowly ethnographic enthusiast like me), and they deserve to be read by all (be sure to check out the ‘comments’ thread, too).

Here is an excerpt (Khawaja has flipped the tired script of many American academics by bringing in a fresh perspective):

I can’t work through all the details here, but take a look at Brennan’s argument in light of the preceding. Either my East Jerusalem case is a counter-example to his thesis, or it’s a defeater for it. In the first case, it refutes the thesis as stated. In the second case, it suggests that the thesis is highly misleading as stated. Given that, my argument requires that Brennan qualify his claims about the ethics of voting in ways that take more explicit stock of cases like the East Jerusalem one–something that would substantially change the “flavor” of his theory.

Brennan’s work has, of course, gotten a lot of excellent treatment in libertarian circles because of both his blogging activities (hint, hint, slackers) and because libertarians have a long, storied distrust of democratic politics (though this is largely an anarchistic distrust rather than the conservative-aristocratic one we North Americans think we are familiar with).

Switching gears, I also need to comment on an interesting paper (pdf) about the “Superiority of Economists” I came across over at MR. It was written by two sociologists and an economist, and it has a number of excellent insights (MR‘s link to the paper was broken, but MR also provided a link to comments by economist Paul Krugman, and his link to the paper was unbroken).

Most of the paper is a rehash of arguments about economics relative to the other social sciences (and the humanities) that libertarians have been having for a long time. (In my anecdotal experience, libertarian economists are quickest to defend the profession of economics from detractors, but they are also the quickest to defend the other social sciences from detractors (and, more importantly, incorporate non-economics research into their own). Leftist and conservative economists, by contrast, condescendingly acquiesce to attacks from other disciplines, but are also very, very disdainful of The Others’ contributions to research.) Libertarian economists generally share the same suspicions as The Other disciplines about the ability of economics to imitate the physical sciences using mathematical models (or that these models are even indicative of how humans “work”). See Warren’s piece (pdf) in Econ Journal Watch for more on these suspicions.

The last section before the conclusion (“A life of their own”) is really good and totally worth the click. It’s about economists and their relationship to everybody else in their society (this paper is made better by the fact that it is written by French academics with an intimate understanding of life in both the US and France, just like some other scholar that we all know and loathe love).

On page 18 the paper cites a few studies and lab experiments which have purportedly shown that people who study economics are, on the whole, less likely to cooperate than everybody else. There are a number of implications that the paper goes over (“does economics attract a certain type of personality?”, for example), but I wanted to focus on what is not discussed in the paper: The fact that economists probably have a different (actually, a more coherent and precise) understanding of the meaning of cooperation. Many criticisms of economics are clearly made of straw. One of the things that initially attracted me to libertarianism was the intelligent, well-informed critiques of economics as I then understood it (“homo economicus“) that were given by libertarians.

I also learned, on page 19 and contra Dr Amburgey’s repeated assertions, that economists are politically (and decisively) to the Left of the average American voter.

Another fascinating page 19 insight is that there is more income inequality ($57k gap between the top 10% and the median) in economics relative to other disciplines, but on this point the authors lose a golden opportunity to do some real sociological analysis (the authors focus instead, and predictably, on the economics profession’s recent prosperity as a whole relative to other academic disciplines; that is to say, on the income inequality between economics and The Others within academia). Earlier in the paper (7-14) an organizational comparison between economics and The Others highlighted the fact that the economics community tends to be more hierarchical, more incestuous, and possesses a “unitary disciplinary core,” which means that virtually all graduate schools teach the same concepts. The Others, in contrast, are “more decentralized, less cohesive, and [possess] less stable prestige rankings.” (9)

The most basic insight that stood out to me when I read the data on incomes was that the disparities and organizational structures of the social sciences and humanities represent a microcosm of society as a whole (pick any ole society you’d like): When rigid hierarchies are enforced, conformity and parochialism (incestuous is too strong a word here) arise, income inequality is more prevalent, and the pecking orders are more entrenched.

In contrast, societies that are “more decentralized and less cohesive” have more variety, much less deference to an established authority (such as a pecking order), and less income inequality ($42k gap between the top 10% of sociologists and the median). There are less women in economics relative to the other disciplines, and the median economist almost has the same income as a top 10% sociologist ($103k to $118k, a difference of only $15k).

Well, this post has already gone on for far too long (I hope to use it as a springboard for future musings) but I will end by noting that on page 23 the paper points out that economics is a very moral discipline, which is something non-libertarian economists vehemently deny. Libertarian economists, on the other hand, have been pointing this out for centuries.

14 thoughts on “Economists are special, but what about Palestinians and American blacks?

  1. “I also learned, on page 19 and contra Dr Amburgey’s repeated assertions, that economists are politically (and decisively) to the Left of the average American voter.”

    I’m not sure where the ‘decisively’ description comes from, perhaps Brandon can elaborate. In the mean time I think 2 quotes from the paper provide a more accurate [and nuanced] description.

    “According to the Gross and Simmons survey of the American professoriate (see Gross 2013), economists
    are situated about halfway between humanities scholars and other social scientists to their left and
    business school professors to their right in most of their political opinions.”

    “A survey from 2004 found 549 economics PhDs teaching in the top 20 US business schools, as
    compared with 637 economics PhDs in the top 20 economics departments (Blau 2006).”

    I’ve spent the last 30+ years in a variety of business schools and, in my experience, there is very little room to the right of economists.

    • The key words here are average American voter (the one that gave Romney 47% of the 2012 presidential vote).

      I am sure you are absolutely correct when you note that the economists at Rotman are far to your right, but this of course doesn’t mean they are not decisively to the Left [pdf] of the general public.

    • I just finished reading the Gross & Simmons paper referred to above. To extend the quote from A Princess Bride, ‘I don’t think that paper says what you think it says’. Read it before you & Jacques go on another rant about liberal bias in the ivory tower.

    • Lol.

      I’m going to stick to my guns on this one Dr A. There is definitive proof that academia leans far to the Left of the general American public. Furthermore, there is definitive proof that academic economists lean to the Left of the general American public (although admittedly not as much as other academics).

      I further claim that anybody who pretends otherwise is living in a sad, almost shameful bubble. Cover up, please!

      You have two pet unicorns, don’t you Dr A? What were their names again?

      I’ll end this on a higher note. While academics are well to the Left of the general public – despite protestations by academics claiming otherwise – there is some evidence to suggest that the education supplied by largely Leftist academics makes a student more moderate than she otherwise would be. This doesn’t mean that academia isn’t overwhelmingly Leftist, but only that the vast majority of them take their job seriously (you might notice the authors of the piece linked to, Dr A).

  2. @Brandon

    “Crowdpac, a non-partisan firm dedicated to political data analysis, used federal campaign contribution records dating back to 1980 in order to estimate where various officials and donors fall on the political spectrum. They scored individual donors as being more liberal or conservative based on what kinds of candidates they gave to.”

    Do you feel that inferences about professors based on federal campaign contributions are methodologically sound?

    • Do you feel that inferences about professors based on federal campaign contributions are methodologically sound?

      No. Hell no, in fact. But I think that inferences about the political preferences of professors based on campaign contributions are methodologically sound.

      I understand that many left-liberal economists from, say, Rotman will vote for a Reagan-esque Republican from time-to-time. This doesn’t mean that they don’t lean Left vis-a-vis the general public, though.

      Are you really denying that academics are overwhelmingly Leftist (compared to the average American voter)?

  3. “Are you really denying that academics are overwhelmingly Leftist (compared to the average American voter)?”

    Only in the same way that you deny that the incomes of women are overwhelmingly less than the incomes of men. Remember how the picture changes when you move beyond the simplistic 70 cent dollar?

    “I think that inferences about the political preferences of professors based on campaign contributions are methodologically sound.”

    I hope your future research is qualitative ethnography; stay far away from anything involving sampling.

    • Let’s try this again.

      Do you deny that academics are overwhelmingly Leftist (compared to the average American voter)?

      It’s a simple yes/no question.

      Remember how the picture changes when you move beyond the simplistic 70 cent dollar?

      No, and we’ve been over this before. You didn’t have a rebuttal that didn’t involve a fallacy, remember? I think this is equivalent to you telling me the name of pet unicorn number one.

      I hope your future research is qualitative ethnography; stay far away from anything involving sampling.

      You almost had me in tears Dr A, but luckily my nose has become especially good at detecting bullshit over the last few years (yours would be too, were you to hang out with a certain former Frenchman far too often).

      Normally (and I realize there ain’t nothin’ normal about NOL) a critique of a sampling method involves, well, a critique. This is especially true in cases where somebody is trying to debunk a commonly-held myth about society or a truth that may not be as true as it once was. Jasper? You named pet unicorn number two Jasper?!? Having rainbow-colored poop is bad enough, Dr A, without you humiliating him in front of the horses with such a stupid name…

    • “Do you deny that academics are overwhelmingly Leftist (compared to the average American voter)?
      It’s a simple yes/no question.”

      Yes. I deny it.

      According to the Gross & Simmons study which you brought to my attention the breakdown of professors [excluding part-time faculty] is Liberal – 28.9% Center/center left – 55.4% Conservative – 15.7%

      “Normally (and I realize there ain’t nothin’ normal about NOL) a critique of a sampling method involves, well, a critique.”

      Using federal campaign donations as a sampling frame provides systematically biased samples. Similar to the crappy samples pollsters get when they use landline phones and exclude cellphones. Feel free to actually try to defend federal campaign donations as a sound sampling frame. If you want an example of a thoughtful approach to sampling you can actually read the Gross & Simmons paper.

    • Wow. If I were you I’d be embarrassed for myself, Terry.

      BREAKING NEWS: Sociologist denies that academia is overwhelmingly Leftist.

      I haven’t been embarrassed for somebody like this since I caught Jacques telling – and repeating – a filthy little lie.

      First of all: Think about it. Is academia a place where you run into a lot of Republicans? Absolutely not. Is academia a place where you run into a lot of libertarians? Absolutely not. What kind of people do you run into in academia?

      Can you truly believe that claiming the mantle of “center-left” rather than simply “left” makes one a moderate and therefore not a Leftist (“Liberal – 28.9% Center/center left – 55.4% Conservative – 15.7%”).

      That’s bullshit of course, and it just goes to show you that most people who have spent their lives in academia live in a bubble where unicorns are real and fairy dust can make everything better.

      I am aware of the limitations of the methodology. It was good enough for our purpose here. And, of course, Terry has offered zero proof – that’s Z-E-R-O – that academia does not lean heavily to the Left. Sorry Uncle Terry, but attempting to change ostensibly Leftist political positions into “Center/center left” ones does not magically create “moderates” out of thin air.

      Lol!

    • “Normally (and I realize there ain’t nothin’ normal about NOL) a critique of a sampling method involves, well, a critique.”

      Follow your own advice. If you have a critique of methodology lay it out; what is the flaw in the methodology of the study that YOU originally brought to our attention? Hysterically clutching your pearls is no substitute for analysis. Try to overcome your confirmation bias.

      “Is academia a place where you run into a lot of Republicans?”

      In my case it is, that’s why I’m not arguing on the basis of personal experience. Gross & Simmons show business as having the highest proportion of conservatives and republicans [1 in 4] in all of academia. Sub-fields within business are sometimes even more skewed: 1/2 of accountants are republicans and more than 1/3 of finance professors are republicans.

      Btw…”In 2006, according to Gallup polls, 34.3 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats, 33.9 percent as Independents, and 30.4 as Republicans. By 2007, according to polls done by Pew, the percentage of Republicans had dropped to 25, while the percentage of Democrats remained nearly steady at 33.

    • Firstly, I don’t think – nor have I claimed – that an overwhelmingly Leftist population in academia is necessarily a bad thing.

      Second, the paper I initially brought up (by Fourcade, Ollion, and Algan) – the one that cites Gross & Simmons – has the exact same interpretation as I do regarding the conclusions, namely that academics sit well to the Left of the general American public.

      I just don’t see how you can continue to deny reality. Is it because you think that if you were to admit the obvious that it would somehow make your own thoughts less legitimate or less erudite?

      Gross & Simmons show business as having the highest proportion of conservatives and republicans [1 in 4] in all of academia.

      So the fact that there is a significant minority of Republicans in business school faculties debunks the fact that academics are overwhelmingly Leftist?

      The methodology of the Gross & Simmons paper (readers: here is a pdf of the 2007 paper, by the way) is fine as far as it goes, except for the part where they created an ad hoc category without any definition for that specific category (which is mysteriously labelled “center/center-left”). There is a footnote about this ad hoc-ness on page 27 promising to explain why the “center/center-left” category was created, but nothing ever materialized from this promise.

      Pretending that you and your posse belong to the center, and espouse the center’s doctrines, is not only a convenient cover for avoiding hard questions but also an easy way to avoid identifying one’s own biases.

      Incidentally, the general numbers of the American public’s preferences (in 2007) only reinforce the argument that academia is overwhelmingly Leftist relative to the rest of the country.

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