Economists’ political preference

While we’re sitting in the old ivory tower, some economists are out there in the real world. They’re very different from the academics, in their work and their demographics. The Wall Street Journal runs periodic surveys of private-sector economic forecasters; here’s a bit from January:

“On the political front, most of the respondents expect a Democrat to be elected president this year, although they personally prefer a Republican.”

Contrast this with the academic economists; here’s the summary from a 2003 survey of members of the American Economic Association, one of the big “trade groups” of academic economists:

“The responses show that most economists are supporters of safety regulations, gun control, redistribution, public schooling, and anti-discrimination laws. They are evenly mixed on personal choice issues, military action, and the minimum wage. Most economists oppose tighter immigration controls, government ownership of enterprise and tariffs. In voting, the Democratic:Republican ratio is 2.5:1.

The academics seem like “social liberals”, but I’d bet both the academics and the private-sector economists are “fiscal conservatives” (with apologies for possibly bastardizing the political terminology). Perhaps it relates to the liberal-friendly character of academia, the subject of the study I cited here. Here’s another result from the survey of the forecasters:

“Some 56% of the economists disapproved of President Bush’s stewardship of the economy, while 44% approved. That is especially startling considering 59% of the economists said the stock market performs better under Republican presidents, compared with 28% who said it favored Democrats.”

The Republican preference of the private-sector economists does seem to be grounded in their beliefs about the effect of the political climate on the financial sector. Academic economists, by and large, don’t care a lot about what’s happening in the financial sector (or, indeed, about anything that might be identified as “economics” by a layperson). The first-guess potted conclusion is probably that the non-academics care about the financial ship – which is indeed their livelihood – enough that they want a Republican to steward it, while the academics care more about politics that isn’t economic policy, where they prefer Democrats.

Do as I say, not as I do

Another Arts & Letters tipoff today. The teaser for the article reads:

“Do professors indoctrinate students by expressing a political ideology in the classroom?”

Similar to what I was talking about the other day when I was arguing that ideology leaks into economics courses when we start using them as civics lessons. The article being referred is from the Chronicle of Higher Education, asking why academia is liberal. Yesterday I reported a survey that found majority liberal political views among economics grad students; it’s not controversial to suggest that university and college faculties are predominantly more liberal than the population.

The article also mentions the real source of the Arts & Letters teaser quote: a study by Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner called, delightfully, “My Professor is a Partisan Hack” (you can read the whole study (pdf) here). That study tried to figure out how students perceive the political leaning of their professors, and how similarity with the students’ own views affected their enjoyment and perception of their courses.

The authors asked students to complete course evaluations that, among other questions, asked them to identify their professors’ political and ideological views, and to report their own confidence in their answers. The surveys were all done after political science courses. The Chronicle article summarizes one of the big results:

“their research showed that students were turned off when professors expressed views that were contrary to their own…”

Perhaps not surprising. The article goes on:

“Mr. Maranto asked the Woessners to contribute a chapter to his book on why conservatives don’t pursue doctorates. Typically, he says, there are a few answers to the question. Liberals say conservatives want to make more money than professors earn, while conservatives argue that they get less encouragement from professors than liberal students do.”

I would love to do a similar study for economics courses. Some interesting questions:

  • Can students confidently identify political ideology of economics professors? Should they be able to, given the supposed neutrality of what we teach?
  • Would students correctly guess that the majority of economists identify themselves as liberal? Does the content of economics courses skew this perception of the professors’ beliefs?
  • Are non-conservatives turned off by economics courses?
  • Do students see economics professors as spreading ideology? If so, is the ideology consistent with the professors’ beliefs? Is it consistent with the students’ perception of the professors’ beliefs?

We need to know how the teaching of economics meshes with the students beliefs and opinions. I strongly believe that the economic method is capable of accommodating and being used by people of any political or ideological belief, but I’d be astonished if such a survey of economics students revealed that this was in fact the case.

Here’s my pitch: do economics professors indoctrinate students by expressing ideology in the classroom? If they do, I believe they are committing a far graver sin than political science professors who do the same. We can separate policy debate from opinion in economics; we can separate out method from our beliefs. Do we?

The Woessner article concludes:

“professors may be well advised to strive for political balance—vigorously challenging students’ viewpoints and presenting multiple perspectives without identifying their own political orientations.”

If we could accomplish something like this in economics – value-free and varied economic method, plus lively ideological debate on economic policy – we might get economics courses that are interesting, useful and diverse. That would beat the mangling of positive and normative economics that too often passes for a real economics course.

The Making of an Economist, Redux

Last summer I read “The Making of an Economist, Redux” by David Colander, a 2000s do-over of a 1980s survey of whats going on in the wee brains of economics grad students. A little bit of introspection goes a long way, but not much of what’s going on in the book really seems like me or economics grad students I know.

Right up front we get a peach of a definition:

“For example, were an undergraduate student to ask an economist how to become an economist…. he would most likely tell her, ‘To become an economist who is considered an economist by other economists, you have to go to graduate school in economics.'”

And we thought defining “economics” was hard! Indirectly, this really tells you as much as the book itself about what economists are up to – that is, forming a closed shop where only PhDs may enter. That would be less worrisome if we weren’t beating diversity out of PhDs almost as aggressively as we beat it out of “Principles of Economics” students…

Anyway, the book surveys economics graduate students. Well, economics graduate students at one of the “elite” (book’s word) schools (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, MIT, Princeton, Yale). Colander defends this choice by pointing out – correctly – the disproportionate influence of economists stationed at those schools, which hire new faculty predominantly from one of the others’ PhD pools. Perhaps limitations in the research budget are to blame, but it would be very interesting to see what was going on at other institutions as well. Non-US universities, smaller schools…

It might change a few of the most surprising results of the surveys. On the issue closest to my heart, 40% of the grad students surveyed disagree that “we can draw a sharp line between positive and normative economics”. Which makes my eyes water.

On the other hand, a bunch of boring-type economic policy questions drew pleasingly all-over-the-place answers. One with some degree of consensus: A strong majority agreed with the statement “Income distribution in developed nations should be more equal”, which is emphatically not what I would expect the public perception of an economists’ opinion to be. It probably partly reflects political beliefs; the students’ stated political allegiance breaks down like so:

Conservative: 16%
Moderate: 24%
Liberal: 48%
Radical: 6%

Not sure what “radical” is trying to catch, but there it is. Is it strange that all these budding economists are “liberal”? In my experience, not really, and in any case, the stereotypical right-wing markets-crazy economist is actually not one with actual basis. Believe it or not, devotees of the “economic method” are not necessarily fiscal conservatives, for example.

More relevant to the issue of what economists do is the question of what the students believe helps people succeed in grad school: a full 67% said “having a thorough knowledge of the economy” was unimportant, which I would wholeheartedly agree with. In courses at the undergraduate level, I was exposed to plenty of history, of the subject and of the world, and plenty of policy debates; at the graduate level, math. And statistics.

The closed shop isn’t much interested in policy debate. It’s not necessarily the job of academic economics to do these things, but I can attest that it makes most graduate-level courses as much fun as a slap to the head. We dive down the rabbit-hole of the literature of our chosen field, but lose whatever tenuous grasp on reality we once had.

An interesting side-effect of this infatuation with what other economists have written (even at the expense of what other economists have thought) and of the closed shop is that PhD theses are interchangeable. Everyone’s doing pretty much the same thing, geared towards the ubiquitous “job market paper” that is supposed to prove to the union bosses how good you’ll be at publishing papers like theirs. It’s either a theoretical paper that looks like other theoretical papers, or an empirical paper that looks like other empirical papers.

I don’t know how much this is true of other disciplines, but I often feel that very little of what we research is question-led, which also kills a big chunk of the chance to be daring or creative. There’s not a lot of big-picture, big-idea, thesis-for-its-own-sake intellectual masturbation going on – and I do mean that as a criticism. Colander’s survey shows our diversity; do we really all want to produce the same work? Can there be more than one way to do good science, good economics? What made us want to become economists? What happened to the questions we wanted to ask? Graduate students: this might be our last chance to ask them.