Tag Archives: economics

Indoctrinating Students Isn’t Easy

UCLA has found a novel way to improve the politicization of its curriculum. UCLA Today, the faculty and staff newspaper, reports that the university’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Sustainability Committee have teamed up to help faculty members across the university figure out ways to slip sustainability messages into their classes, regardless of the actual subjects they are teaching.  Participating faculty members get a two-hour workshop and a $1,200 grant to turn their courses into vehicles of sustaina-ganda. 

The newspaper account highlights political science professor Miriam Golden who is using the extra money to change reading lists, data sets, homework assignments.  Professor Golden is ardently behind the cause.  “I think climate change is the largest global challenge to ever face the human race, and we need to help students understand the social and political implications,” she says.  But the money clearly helps.  She wouldn’t be altering the content of her courses without it.

Is it a good thing when a third party puts money on the table to ensure that a particular point of view gets extra attention and favorable treatment in a public university?  Not when Charles G. Koch pledged $1.5 million to support faculty appointments in Florida State University’s economics department for the purpose of promoting “political economy and free enterprise.”  When that story broke in Spring 2011, the higher education establishment expressed dismay at the supposed affront to academic freedom.  Two FSU professors, Kent Miller and Ray Bellamy, led the charge against the “intrusive actions” of the funders, but a faculty panel grudgingly found the grant acceptable.  The progressive commentariate could hardly find enough exclamation points to express its outrage at this commercial sullying of the pure soul of academic inquiry.

I don’t expect that UCLA’s little experiment in cash incentives to faculty members who adjust their teaching in the direction of global warming hysteria and the virtues of sustainability will elicit any similar disdain.  But the Koch “intrusion” at Florida State and the sustainability grants at UCLA are really two sides of the same coin.  Charles Koch would like universities to teach more about the virtues of free markets.  The sustainability crowd generally views free markets as a deep source of environmental ruination.  Both sides are ready to put some money into the game. The Koch grant supports the appointment of faculty members in one department who would be explicitly identified as advocates for a point of view.  The UCLA program is meant to insinuate a point of view across the whole curriculum.  Which sounds more likely to infringe on the integrity of academic programs or the intellectual freedom of students?

UCLA innovation is the cash incentive, not the attempt at broader product placement.  The effort to get sustainability incorporated in every class has been a goal of the sustainability movement for some time. The question for the sustainatopians has been how best to make this happen.  The National Association of Scholars has watched these efforts unfold first as naked aggression, as we reported in “An Elbow in the Ribs: Prof-Prodding Toward Sustainability.”  Sometimes it took more than an elbow bestowed on the reluctant professor, as we observed in “The Sustainability Inquisition.”  Carrots in the form of cash incentives are arguably an improvement over the sticks that the movement more typically uses. 

The money might be put to some good uses.  Who would object to the Earth and Space Sciences professor taking the cash to make videos of fluid dynamics to explain how the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” came about?  There is, however, something a little unsettling about an effort to make every class in a university into a brick in a wall of advocacy.  “Sustainability” falsely presents itself as settled wisdom not only about the science of climate change, but about the proper economic, political, and social responses.  These are matters where students deserve the benefit of hearing the best arguments from all sides.  UCLA’s decision to stack the deck is, unfortunately, all too common for the University of California.  The best response from UCLA faculty members would be to refuse the money and to teach their courses in the spirit of fair-minded scholarship, not as exercises in recruitment to a cause.  

“Diversity” and the Gender Gap in Economics

Both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education have articles this morning about a new survey of Economics PhDs that finds a dramatic gender gap on policy questions.  Among the findings, women economists are:

  • 20% more likely than men to disagree with the notion that the United States has too much government regulation;
  • 24% more likely than men to believe that the size of the U.S. government is either “too small” or “much too small”;
  • 41% more likely than men to favor a more progressive tax structure.

The Chronicle article is tendentiously titled “Gender Gap in Economics Shows Analyses Aren’t Objective,” but nothing in the article or the survey’s press release linked above supports that conclusion. Do “objective” analyses always agree? Did the 78 male and 65 female economists who responded to the survey receive similar training — for example, did they attend more or less marked-oriented Phd programs in the same numbers? As the Chronicle noted, the survey’s lead author, Ann Mari May, professor of economics at the University of Nebraska, is executive vice president and treasurer of the International Association for Feminist Economists. Is feminist economics objective, or is no economics objective?

According to Prof. May, the results “showed little gender disparity on matters of theory and methodology. But when you get to policy questions in economics,” she said, “then you’re sort of heading into an area where people might have different experiences that lead them to see different things in the data.”

Prof. May is not at all reticent about proclaiming her own conclusions about the lessons her research teaches.

Women accounted for about 35 percent of doctorates in economics awarded by U.S. universities in 2010, up from 27 percent in 2000, Ms. May said. “If we learned anything from this study,” she said, “it’s the importance of making sure that you have diverse viewpoints at the table when you’re debating these things amongst experts.”

That’s a pretty big “if.” If Prof. May is to be believed, for starters, a male might well see “different things” in her data. If it’s true that women economists are nearly 25% more likely than men to believe the size of the U.S. government is “too small” or “much too small,” for example, some would no doubt argue that there are far too many women economists.

If more women economists are needed “at the table” (what table is that, other than the voting booth?) when “these things” are being debated “amongst experts,” then surely economics departments should make concerted (though no doubt “holistic”) efforts to recruit and produce more women PhDs, no? But if “diverse viewpoints” are the goal, why rely on a weak proxy like gender? Why not just recruit and produce by viewpoint quota?

The question of whether or not we (whoever “we” are) need more women economists sitting around the proverbial table, like the question  of the proper size of the U.S. government or the degree of progressivity of the tax code, has no objectively (or should that be “objectively”?) correct answer, and it is nothing more than academic hubris to think that the views of scholarly “experts” who tend these fields deserve special deference on policy questions.

When the questions on the table address policy choices freighted with politics, values, ideology, rather than assigning seats to economists based on gender (or race or ethnicity) I would prefer to have no economists at all.

A Campaign Against the Koch Foundation


There is an old saying in politics that “They don’t scream unless you hurt them.”  When your adversaries scream, it is a good sign that your measures have been effective. Judged by this standard, the Koch Brothers (David and Charles) have been very effective in recent years in advancing their causes of limited government and classical liberalism, much to the discomfort of liberal foes promoting business regulation, higher taxes, and ObamaCare.

The Koch brothers have been on the receiving end of non-stop attacks from liberal journalists and academics ever since Jane Mayer published a hit piece on them last year in The New Yorker purporting to show that their contributions were behind the rise of the “Tea Party” movement.  This wildly exaggerated claim was meant to cast the Koch brothers as great villains, but villains possessed of a satanic combination of power and tactical brilliance.  In a predictable course, Mayer’s fairy tale was circulated by the columnists and editorial writers of the New York Times and from there through a network of second-level columnists and political magazines until at length it came to the attention of the credulous foot soldiers of the liberal-left who have kept the pot boiling in recent months with ever more inventive and exaggerated versions of the original lie.     
The latest controversy surrounding the Kochs arises from an article published last week in the St. Petersburg Times titled, “Billionaire’s Role in Hiring Decisions at Florida State University Raises Questions.”  The author insinuates that the Koch Foundation was trying to “buy off” the Economics Department at Florida State University through a $1.5 million grant (paid over six years) to hire new faculty and to support graduate fellowships under a program in “political economy and free enterprise.”  Under the grant, a three-person faculty committee was set up to review candidates for the positions, including one member designated by the Foundation.  The paper suggested that by designating a member of the review committee the Foundation was undermining academic freedom by interfering in the faculty’s right to appoint colleagues on the basis of professional competence.   

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150 Years of Contempt for Free Markets

Alan S. Kahan has cast new light on an ongoing conflict with origins in classical antiquity if not earlier. Kahan’s Mind vs. Money: The War Between Intellectuals and Capitalism is a learned and engaging account of the tension between the amorality of the marketplace and the moralism of would-be priestly authorities. Until the Enlightenment, merchants were forced to bow before the courtly classes of the aristocracy, which staffed the military, and the clergy, which surveilled the public morality of the peasantry. But the Enlightenment, in challenging the authority of the aristocracy and the priesthood, opened up space for unbowed commerce, and hence the merchant middle class, to thrive. There are those, once largely on the right, today largely on the left, who have never forgiven the Enlightenment for this sin against the would-be guardians of morality.
The book’s central themes were laid out in 1834 by the German poet Heinrich Heine. Heine, who had nothing but contempt for American money-making, spoke of the United States as “that big pig-pen of freedom/Inhabited by boors living in equality.” Heine’s romantic ambitions yearned to transcend mere material freedom. He saw the intellectuals as the basis for the new aristocracy of virtue. “It is no longer a matter of destroying the old church,” he explained, “but rather building a new one, and far from wanting to annihilate the clergy, today we want to make ourselves priests.” But while Heine hoped a clerisy would remake the world he also saw an abyss ahead. “A drama will be performed in Germany,” he prophesied, “in contrast with which the French Revolution will seem a mere peaceful idyll.”

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Every Professor an Entrepeneur?

What if all college professors were forced to be higher-education entrepreneurs, with salaries pegged to the number of students they attract to their classes? That’s the model recently proposed by a Texas professor who styled himself “Publius Audax” on a Pajamas Media blog. Publius launched his proposal, he wrote, as the solution to a projected $25 billion budget shortfall over the next two years that is likely to hit the Texas higher education hard. Publius’ argument is that his “entrepreneurial professor model,” when coupled with other reforms would “harness the power and efficiency of the market” to make public higher education cheaper and better. The other reforms include abolishing tenure, eliminating state subsidies to public campuses, getting rid of “core curricula” (which nowadays are nothing more than pointless distribution requirements, and allowing private “charter colleges” (both nonprofit and for-profit) onto public campuses in order to provide more competition.

Hmm, my own undergraduate alma mater was founded by a highly successful entrepreneur, the railroad baron Leland Stanford. What if college professors were more like Leland Stanford and less like the brilliant but economically illiterate head-in-the-clouds types who taught at Stanford when I went there?

Here is how Publius’ entrepreneurial professor model would work: All professors and lecturers would receive a base “living wage” of $30,000 plus benefits. Beyond that it would be up to the professors themselves to generate a “tuition-based bonus” for themselves consisting of 50 percent of the tuition income generated by students enrolled in their classes, “up to a maximum of 320 students (960 student hours).” All instructors would be allowed to teach up to eight classes a year. In order to gin up the price competition further, professors, department heads, and even entire colleges could offer tuition rebates to students, the money to come out of the professors’ salary bonuses. Professors with ultra-large classes could hire teaching assistants—but the money would again have to come out of their salary bonuses. And to ensure that professors wouldn’t game the system by handing out easy A’s to all comers, there would be a strict grading curve. No more than 15 percent of students in any given class could receive an A-grade, and another 15 percent would have to either flunk or receive a D. Professors whose grades deviated from the curve would lose their bonus for every student whose grade exceeded the curve. This would not only keep the professors in line, Publius argues, but would “transform the campus culture, replacing partying with studying” as students scrambled to stay out of the bottom of the class.

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Recapturing the University: The Hybrid Alternative

In the contemporary battle within the social sciences between free market think tanks and liberal- dominated universities, the former labor under a huge disadvantage: they lack students. Think-tank based scholars may daily issue erudite policy analyses, write incisive op-ed columns galore, dominate talk radio, publish in widely admired magazines like City Journal but the half-life of these missives seldom exceeds a few days. By contrast, a professor typically has fifteen weeks, two to three times per week, for usually 50 minutes, to expound his or her views to a captive audience, two to four courses per semester, and over a thirty-five plus year career. Of the utmost importance, professors can compel students to read stuff and insist on minimal familiarity, a power unimaginable to even the most professional think tank PR department. That these students are of an impressionable age—the pedagogical equivalent of droit de seigneur— and are hardly in a position to argue, only adds to this built in indoctrination advantage.
In graduate education the propagating-the-faith advantage multiplies, since most Ph.D. students will become tomorrow’s teachers. Ideological domination can persist for decades, regardless of events. So, to use a depressing example, the Marxist analyses that first filtered into America’s college classrooms in the 1960s are still going strong a half century later and can only continue on as the torch is passed from professor to Ph.D. advisees. Perhaps only centuries from now will Marxism go inert and like spent weapons-grade Plutonium, the last lead-brained but still radioactive Marxist professor will be entombed in a deep Nevada salt mine. And it may require additional centuries for him to be joined by ideologically exhausted feminists, deconstructionists, ethnic studies experts and all the rest.
This monopoly of early access cannot be overcome by think tanks churning out more reports, better public relations, or ensuring that every “important opinion leaders” receives a free copy of their sponsored research (which may not even be read). And keep in mind that professors get to students first (the droit de seigneur), so the glories of free markets, low taxes, and limited government etc. etc. must overcome years of prior exposure. It is no wonder that many free-market think tank scholars must feel like they are trying to push boulder up a mountain. They are—the professors got there first and designed the obstacle course terrain.

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Remarkable Fact Of The Day

At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, students can minor in social and economic justice without taking a single economics course.—Reported by E. Frank Stephenson on the Division of Labor blog.

We Are All Marxists Now

In an unintentional, if powerful, commentary on the grip that groupthink has on some quarters of the economy, LeMoyne professor Dolores Byrnes informed readers of the NEA’s Thought & Action that “some professors of education recently told me during a department retreat: ‘We are all Marxist, it doesn’t even need to be said.'”
No wonder Education schools—from Minnesota to the aggressive practitioners of the “dispositions” criterion—have proven so eager to purge from their ranks those with dissenting opinions. And no wonder LeMoyne’s Ed School was sued for dismissing a student because of his (non-Marxist, naturally) political beliefs. Byrnes’ anecdote also shows just how out of touch the higher education establishment has become—and how the nation’s colleges and universities have suffered as a result.
Essay after essay in the NEA’s annual higher-education publication complains about how professors lack respect from the public, without ever pausing to consider how the image of colleges and universities as the bastion of out-of-touch ideologues might have caused the problem.

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The Rise Of The Economics Major

This piece was co-authored by Maurice Black
With the global economy enduring its worst downturn in decades, a nervous public anxious to know what might happen next, and economics professors becoming media celebrities in their own right, it’s no surprise that more college students are gravitating toward economics classes. The Oberlin College economics department reports that course enrollment is up 25 percent so far this year. Other schools are seeing similar trends, as students flock to lectures on macroeconomics, monetary policy, and behavioral economics. Economics 101 is wait-listed around the country. In a time of budgetary cutbacks and hiring freezes, some economics departments have even taken on extra faculty to cope with the burden.
But explaining economics’ surging popularity wholly as a side effect of the global financial crises would be a mistake says David Colander, chair of the economics department at Middlebury College. In his recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Economics is the ‘Just Right’ Liberal-Arts Major,” he notes that the discipline’s popularity has quietly been on the increase for years. Those who believe that economics has merely become the liberal arts proxy for business school also turn out to be wrong. When questioned about their career plans, only 36 percent of economics majors said they planned to enter the business world.
Instead, Colander proposes that liberal arts students behave a bit like Goldilocks when choosing their majors. They sample courses from across the curriculum, searching for a “just right” blend of intellectual rigor, cutting-edge ideas, core skills, and broader understanding of the world. Increasingly, they are finding that ideal blend in the economics department. Prospective employers are happy to hire economics majors, who can think creatively and innovatively, communicate effectively, and handle quantitative analysis with ease.
In the parlance of game theory, economics would seem to have become a win-win proposition for all.

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Milton Friedman Still Haunts Chicago Faculty

The efforts of some of the University of Chicago’s faculty to derail a planned research institute named after the university’s Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) is full of delicious ironies. In a June 6 letter to Chicago’s president, Robert Zimmer and its provost, Thomas Rosenbaum, more than 100 professors—not a single one from Chicago’s prestigious economics department, where the free market-promoting theories of Friedman and his colleagues became known as the “Chicago School” and generated several more Nobel economics prizes—complained that the university would be forsaking its commitment to “strong intellectual diversity” in establishing its proposed Milton Friedman Institute that would, as one of its founding documents states, emphasize economic analyses that “respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services.” Non state-controlled markets and individual freedom seem to be anathema to the literature, music, anthropology, and divinity professors who signed the anti-Friedman Institute letter, which predicts that the institute “will inevitably be a powerful magnet for scholars and donors who share a specific set of interests and values to the exclusion of others, whether this is openly acknowledged or not.”

Of course, as Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has pointed out, the University of Chicago already has a number of programs that promote a “specific set of interests and values to the exclusions of others, whether…openly acknowledged or not”—except that those interests and values are on the acceptable left, not the anathematized right. For example, Chicago boasts a Center for Gender Studies, where “colonialism” seems to be a major topic of faculty research, along with “feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer studies.” Indeed, the letter to Zimmer and Rosenbaum included the chairman and associate director of the gender studies center among its signatories. Similarly, the university’s Center for Race, Politics and Culture is also colonialism- and gender-fixated, sponsoring a three-semester-long course in “Colonizations,” along with other “courses that posit race and racialization in comparative and transnational frameworks; highlight the intersection of race and ethnicity with other identities (gender, class, sexuality, and nationality); and/or interrogate [that’s a two-dollar synonym for “analyze”] social identity cleavages within racialized communities.”

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Milton Friedman Still Irritates Some Professors

A group of professors at the University of Chicago—101 of them, or about 8 percent of the full-time faculty—is protesting the decision to establish an economics research institute on campus to be named after Milton Friedman. Their letter to the president of the university says the naming would “reinforce among the public a perception that the university’s faculty lacks intellectual and ideological diversity.”

Good grief. This must be one of the rare times when a significant number of professors fretted about the lack of intellectual diversity on a major campus. This kind of concern did not surface when one survey after another showed that campuses are dominated by liberal and Democratic professors. Instead we got rationalizations: conservatives weren’t bright enough to climb the academic ladder, or they were too money-hungry to head for the campus at all. The lack of real diversity isn’t bothersome to the protesters, but the “perception” created by naming a center for a famous, Nobel-winning, free-market economist is disturbing. “For many people who travel around the world, the university has had a pretty bad reputation that is tied to the Chicago school and economic principles that Milton Friedman advocated,” said Yali Amit, a University of Chicago statistics and computer science professor.

The protesters are also convinced that the new center “is a right-wing think tank being put in place,” in the words of Bruce Lincoln, a professor in the history of religions at the U. of C. But the university explicitly says it will welcome a range of viewpoints at the center. And Erin O’Connor, blogging at Critical Mass adds this: “Friedman himself was hardly pigeon-holeable—as a libertarian, he believed in free markets, but he also helped end the draft and advocated the decriminalization of drugs and prostitution. But these things are lost on the faculty protesters, with their blunt-instrument descriptors…”
Ilya Somin, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy says it doesn’t matter if the center attracts a disproportionate number of libertarian and conservative scholars as long as their scholarship is of high quality and judged by objective standards. And the deep concern that scholars at the Friedman center might lean right doesn’t seem balanced by a parallel concern over the many centers and departments that identify with the left. Think of “gender studies,” “peace studies,” or Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University. Final note: for some reason the names of the protesting professors have not been released. Why not?

The ‘Third Way’ At The University Of Chicago

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 9, 2008) devoted four full pages to a new book by two professors at the University of Chicago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, one a professor of economics and behavioral science and the other a professor of law. The book, entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is intended to approach policies that encourage, but do not insist on, socially desirable directions.

Presumably cognitive limitations stand in the way of appropriate choices. Since people are basically inert, impulsive and often irrational they would be best off nudged into acceptable behavior, claim the authors. What they call for is “libertarian paternalism” which they argue is not an oxymoron.

A “nudge”, according to them, is a non-coercive alteration in the decision making process, e.g. innocuous details such as the pattern of lines on a road. Professor Sunstein explains that “For too long, the United States has been trapped in a debate between laissez-faire types who believe markets will solve all our problems and the command and control types who believe that if there is a market failure then you need a mandate.” He and his colleague stand astride arguing that an understanding of human irrationality can improve how public and private institutions shape policy. The presumption is that a nudge does not limit free choice; it merely provides a desirable direction.

One example used by the authors is the reluctance of employees to sign up for 401k plans even though it is in their best interest to do so. They suggest that companies adopt automatic enrollment, while retaining an opt-out provision. That would be seen as the right kind of nudge that still allows for free choice.

Professor Thaler has spent a career thinking about decision making and, in his judgment, people often opt for irrational or overly optimistic positions. For example, he notes they are more fearful of unlikely threats like a nuclear power accident then they are something more probable like a car accident.

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College Admissions, Let’s Not Break The Law

David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times, recently visited the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and took a careful look at the current admissions process of that campus in the wake of Proposition 209, the California ballot initiative that outlawed race and gender preferences in public education, as well as in public employment and contracting. In particular, Leonhardt examined the application and the fate of one Francis Harris, a black student from Sacramento, who became the case study for his article. Here is how Leonhardt describes Ms. Harris:

She has managed to do very well in very difficult circumstances, and she is African-American. Her high school, in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, was shut down as an irremediable failure the spring before her freshman year, then reopened months later as a charter school. Midway through high school, her father developed heart problems and became an irritable fixture around the home. She also discovered that he was not actually her biological father. That was a man named Leroy who, when her mother took Harris to see him, simply said his name was George and waited for her to leave. In Harris’s senior year, her mother lost her job at a nursing home and the family filed for bankruptcy… Harris, for instance, scored a 22 on the ACT test – slightly above the national average and well below the U.C.L.A. average.

The underlying question posed by Leonhardt with regard to Harris is the extent to which her “disadvantages” should factor into her application for admission to U.C.L.A. As did Leonhardt, most college admissions officers look primarily at one facet of Harris’s life: “…she is African-American.” They start from the premise stated by Peter Taylor, a good friend mentioned in Leonhardt’s column, that “race has an enormous effect on the lives of applicants.”

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