Something has been bugging me a lot this week. And, well, it's time to get it off my chest. Idealistic conservatives--this is your warning--continue reading only with extreme caution.
I was listening to Marketplace the other day on NPR and they interviewed an "economist" from a conservative think tank. I am not going to name names, but let me just say that I know this guy and I am annoyed that he can be called an "economist." (Hence, why I keep using scare quotes).
This fellow, put on national radio, to speak about this administrations' budget, has an Masters in Economics from George Mason University, the bastion of public choice/libertarian thought. GMU is by no stretch in the top 10 schools for Economics. When, let's call him Sam, met one of my best friends, who I will call Emma, he was immediately intimidated. He had been introducing himself all night as an economist and then asked her what she did. "I am an environmental economist," Emma says, slightly bored. I step in, always being the gadfly, and tell Sam, "yea, Emma got her Ph.D. from Northwestern University." Emma wouldn't have been so arrogant to let this fact drop. But, I was getting annoyed with Sam strutting his credentials.
Anyway, to Sam's credit, he said "oh, you're a real economist." What Sam means by that is his program trained him to do one thing well: espouse public choice economic talking points. This reminds me, btw, of a comment that one of my colleagues often makes about how good his libertarian econ students are (especially in micro), because they are so committed to the basic assumptions of those models. The difference, however, between libertarian economists and economists like my colleagues, is subtlety, nuance and mathematical skill. Libertarian models assume a perfect world. All of their assumptions about human choices and market forces are true only in some Platonic realm of the Forms. This is why real economists, like my friend Emma, study a great deal of mathematics. They need more sophisticated tools for modeling economic behavior. Because, the real world is a lot messier and a lot less likely to work out according to the predictions of public choice economists.
Now, let's go back to why I am irritated when I hear Sam spouting off stuff on Marketplace: it's such bad analysis. He couldn't hold a candle to most of my colleagues, but what can he do? He can stay on message. He can boil down rather complicated data to simplistic pablum. The whole public can speak in that sort of training-wheels-economics. Why don't they call up my colleagues? Well, because my colleagues often study really specific, complicated questions that would take longer to describe than a 15 second spot on Marketplace.
One more rant about this. LEON KASS. I am ashamed that he is in the same profession as I am. Scott did a great piece last week on his Kass's recent article, The End of Courtship. I won't dwell too long on this point, but let me say that whever I teach Kass's articles on the "wisdom of repugnance," that argues against biotechnologies by claiming that we find them "repugnant" on some deep level, my students generally reject the argument as weak. I am talking about students from all sides of the political spectrum, however, they are not yet politicized. Kass simply doesn't make arguments. It is simplistic, moralistic hackery. And, yet, he gets promoted to the President's Committee on Bioethics. Let me just give you a taste of what I mean about Kass's moralistic hackery:
According to Kass, it is all women's fault that we no longer "court" or get married. They aren't playing their proper role in taming the male. And, hell, we can't expect men to be decent and noble without women playing their role.
How can anyone take this seriously? Shit, I can't believe he has an academic post. Any empirical data here?
Hence, I am starting to think that if you are a so-so thinker, really good at simplifying problems and delivering a message that is consistent with the party message, you are likely to land yourself a high profile and better paying job than any Ph.D. hanging out at the University. As my colleague often says, if you want to get famous for your ideas, become a conservative.
UPDATE: My bad, I guess Kass stepped down from the chairmanship of the President's Bioethics Council. I know nothing about this new head, from Georgetown and Catholic University.