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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hard and Soft

Recall the opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed about how business school courses in ethics are a laughingstock. An article in today's International Herald Tribune describes the larger amoral free market reality on campus. Excerpts:

...[I]n recent months, economists have engaged in an impassioned debate over the way their specialty is taught in universities around the United States... They are questioning the profession's most cherished ideas about not interfering in the economy.

"There is much too much ideology," said Alan Blinder, a professor at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Economics, he added, is "often a triumph of theory over fact."

Blinder helped kindle the discussion by publicly warning in speeches and articles this year that as many as 30 million to 40 million Americans could lose their jobs to lower-paid workers abroad.

Just by raising doubts about the unmitigated benefits of free trade, he made headlines and had colleagues rubbing their eyes in astonishment.

"What I've learned is anyone who says anything even obliquely that sounds hostile to free trade is treated as an apostate," Blinder said.

And free trade is not the only sacred subject, Blinder and other like-minded economists say. Most efforts to intervene in the markets - like setting a minimum wage, instituting industrial policy or regulating prices - are viewed askance by mainstream economists, as are analyses that do not rely on mathematical modeling.

That attitude, the critics argue, has seriously harmed the discipline, suppressing original, creative thinking and distorting policy debates.

"You lose your ticket as a certified economist if you don't say any kind of price regulation is bad and free trade is good," said David Card, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has done groundbreaking research on the effect of the minimum wage.

...[A]s issues like income inequality, free trade and protectionism have become part of the presidential candidates' stump speeches, more thinkers have joined the debate.

... Part of the reason is the growing income inequality and dislocation that global markets and a revolution in communications have helped create.

... Meanwhile, critics have also pointed out the limits of standard cost-benefit accounting to measure items like the cost of inequality or damage to the ecosystem.

...[T]he increasing popularity in the mainstream of behavioral economics, which looks at people's complex psychological reactions to events, has offered a fuller picture of how consumers operate in the marketplace.

...[Some take] the discipline to task for relying on abstract theories and mathematical modeling instead of observation and sociological analysis.

... Heterodox economists complain that they are almost completely shut out by their more influential neoclassical colleagues who dominate most American university departments and prestigious peer-reviewed journals that are essential to gaining tenure...

This is essentially a battle between relentlessly hard thinkers for whom morality, psychology, human complexity, and, well, humans themselves represent hopelessly soft targets of thought, and thinkers these toughies regard as mush-brains who want to sit around talking about feelings.

Some version of this battle is hard-wired into all universities' curricula. Listen to any empirical scientist talk candidly about sociology...

But in this case the heterodox faction is correct that university economics, having become fixated on modeling and free trade, diverts serious attention away from on-the-ground realities.