Monday, April 27, 2009

Are Economists More Conservative than Other Social Scientists?

My opinion on this is flatly “no”.

On the other hand, are there more conservatives among economists? I would say the answer to this is flatly “yes”.

I think what has happened here is that economists with theories and results that have pointed in conservative direction have been on a really long winning streak.

Economists who were intellectually “raised” a generation ago (like me) or even a bit longer, can clearly remember when economic results with conservative implications were widely ridiculed. The problem was, in case after case, they turned out to be correct. By the same token, economists with liberal ideas – John Kenneth Galbraith for example – increasingly seemed to be dinosaurs. Further, there was a flowering of new economists, starting in the 1970s, whose personal politics weren’t particularly conservative but whose results could be broadly interpreted as conservative by people outside the field.

A good example of this is Paul Krugman. Like him or not, he’s undoubtedly one of the top 2-4 economists to have come out of graduate school in the last 50 years. His personal politics are clearly liberal. Yet, his results, and most of his popular books would probably be ridiculed in a typical social science class. Heck: his thinking got him a job in the Reagan White House. He pooh-poohs that today, but I think that was a realistic match at the time.

Even better in Greg Mankiw. As a Harvard undergraduate he wrote one of the most important papers justifying Keynes’ thinking. Yet he will be forever identified as a conservative because he worked in the Bush administration.

This extends to presidents. When I rank presidents from left to right in terms of their economics, I put Clinton to the right of Nixon and Ford, quite probably Bush I and possibly Bush II. And Obama doesn’t scare me too much because he chose people like Romer and Sunstein who I think would’ve been unemployable in any of the five presidential administrations of the 60’s and 70’s.  And think about Larry Summers: chased out of the Harvard administration for being too conservative after serving in the Clinton administration.

I think contemporary economists are conservative enough that we don’t need to worry too much about their political leanings. But … don’t get me started about other academics that show up in Washington.

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