Dismal scientists: how the crash is reshaping economics

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With the chattering classes consumed by concern for the devastated value of their 401K funds, and their suddenly precarious lifestyles, there has been much anger and scorn directed at those former masters of the universe, financiers.

But the shock to the world of finance has been echoed by a shock to the world of academic economics that is just as profound.


In the long post WWII boom, as free market ideology triumphed, economists have won for themselves a privileged place inside academia.

First there is the cash. It astonished some when Washington University, a school with an economics department of modest prestige, hired economists David Levine and Michele Boldrin by offering salaries well in excess of $500,000.  But most high ranked economics departments have professors earning in excess of $300,000.  Not much by the pornographic standards of finance, but a fat paycheck compared to your average English or Physics professor.

It is not just the stars.  Journeyman assistant professors in economics routinely come in at $100,000 or more. And, unlike the hard sciences, they do this fresh from their PhDs, without a publication to their name and without years of low pay as post-docs.

The high salaries have been accompanied by dramatic declines in the teaching burden.  The research demands of our advanced science leave little time for the classroom.  In good universities faculty typically teach only two courses a year - one of which has to be a graduate seminar.  The masses in the Econ 1 classes are often abandoned to the tender mercies of graduate students.

Then there is the economics "Nobel" Prize.  Not a real Nobel, but a prize funded by the Bank of Sweden in honor of Alfred Nobel, with all the royal trappings of the Nobel.  That makes economics star players really attractive to universities.  When Edward Prescott of Arizona State won the Nobel he was paraded at half time at a football game.  There is nothing like a Nobel for luster and fund-raising.

Why did academic economics generate so much prestige? Sure, modern economics is technically demanding.  But so, for example, are theoretical physics and archeology, and physics and archeology professors are (relatively) dirt poor.

The technical demands helped limit the supply of economists. But what drove demand was the unquenchable thirst for economists by banks, government agencies, and business schools - the Feds, the Treasury, the IMF, the World Bank, the ECB.  Economics had powerful insights to offer the world, insights worth a lot of treasure.  Economics was powerful voodoo.  Any major university or research institute wanted to arm itself with this potency.

The current recession has revealed the weaknesses in the structures of modern capitalism.  But it also revealed as useless the mathematical contortions of academic economics.  There is no totemic power.  This for two reasons:

(1) Almost no-one predicted the world wide downtown.  Academic economists were confident that episodes like the Great Depression had been confined to the dust bins of history.  There was indeed much recent debate about the sources of "The Great Moderation" in modern economies, the declining significance of business cycles.

Indeed as we have seen this year on the academic job market, macroeconomists had turned their considerable talents to a bizarre variety of rococo academic elaborations.  With nothing of importance to explain, why not turn to the mysteries of online dating, for example.

I myself was so confident of the consensus of the end of the business cycle that I persuaded by wife after the collapse of Lehman Brothers to invest all her retirement savings in the stock market, confident that the Fed would soon make things right and we could profit from the panic of a gullible public.  The line "Where is my money, idiot?" is her's.

(2) The debate about the bank bailout, and the stimulus package, has all revolved around issues that are entirely at the level of Econ 1.  What is the multiplier from government spending?  Does government spending crowd out private spending?  How quickly can you increase government spending? If you got a A in college in Econ 1 you are an expert in this debate: fully an equal of Summers and Geithner.     

The bailout debate has also been conducted in terms that would be quite familiar to economists in the 1920s and 1930s.  There has essentially been no advance in our knowledge in 80 years.

It has seen people like Brad De Long accuse distinguished macro-economists like Eugene Fama and John Cochrane of the University of Chicago of at least one "elementary, freshman mistake."

It has seen Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, guided by Larry Summers, one of the most respected economists of our time, produce a bailout plan for the US financial system stunning in its faltering vagueness.

Bizarrely, suddenly everyone is interested in economics, but most academic economists are ill-equipped to address these issues.

Recently a group of economists affiliated with the Cato Institute ran an ad in the New York Times opposing the Obama's stimulus plan.  As chair of my department I tried to arrange a public debate between one of the signatories and a proponent of fiscal stimulus -- thinking that would be a timely and lively session.  But the signatory, a fully accredited university macroeconomist, declined the opportunity for public defense of his position on the grounds that "all I know on this issue I got from Greg Mankiw's blog -- I really am not equipped to debate this with anyone."

Academic economics will no doubt survive this shock to its prestige.

Will we be as well paid?  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests the days of the $500,000 economics professor may have passed.

But more importantly, will the focus of academic economics change?  That is hard to tell.  But I would rate the chances of Chrysler producing once again a competitive US automobile at least as high as the chances of academic economics learning any lesson from this downturn.  (What was the price of that Chrysler stock we bought, dear?)

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Gregory Clark

Gregory Clark is a professor of economics at the University of California at Davis and the author of A Farewell to Alms.
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