Dismal scientists: how the crash is reshaping economics

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.

Presented by

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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