The 44th American President

As Obama becomes the new President of the USA, I happen to wonder what has happened to the political orientation of our profession.

George Stigler (1959: 524) argued that economists are conservatives “in the sense of being hostile to an increasing number of innovations in economic policy.” But the pie-chart below suggests that we no longer are so hostile. The question is then: why?capturedata78

Leaving aside the quite likely possibility that the survey (by was biased, if economists have embraced ‘change we need,’ does it mean that (i) we do need the change,  (ii) economists have realized that we do need it, (iii) economists are so honest that they admit we need it, (iv) economists agree with the majority of the American laypersons?

Let’s play along and imagine that the answers to the four quesitons were yes-yes-yes-yes. Which ‘yes’ would be the most surprising?

14 thoughts on “The 44th American President

  1. That’s a game where, say, 3 players independently imagine each a subject, a verb, and a complement (and adjectives and etc., depending on how many players you are). Then each player reveals its choice. Put together, a sentence is formed. The effect is simply to produce sentences with unexpected meanings. The name of the game comes from one of the earliest sentence hence formed: Le cadavre – exquis – boira – le vin – nouveau (“The exquisite cadaver will drink the new wine”).

    This was invented by the surrealist movement in the 30s, together with their experiments in automatic writing, … it is still played here and there in schools and cafes.

  2. I would suggest that, traditionally, the American political spectrum has been (between right and left) conservative republican and progressive Democrat. For the last 10 years or so I have noticed a change — progressive republicans and conservative democrats.

    I mean that the issues among the democrats have been fairly stable. The issues among the republicans have been subversive of the status quo. These republicans seek to make abortion illegal, gay marriage illegal, and make people pray in school.

    Just because these issues were known in previous times does not make them conservative. It is a false history that tells us that republicans are trying to return to some period in the past. They actually are using policy to make a nirvana of their own creation. They seek to use the legal-political system to shape society by force.

    For this reason the relatively conservative notion of democratic social justice has become the status quo which is being subverted by the conservatives. I think this helps to answer why the profession, which trusts the lessons learned from the past is suspicious of deviant political sects. Using political power to coerce others is fundamentally antithetical to economic intuition.

  3. Well, I’m afraid that the explanation is much simpler than what both Alessandro and Michael suggests. Economists are also individuals, and they are academics too … indeed, academics are much more likely to vote for the Democrats than for the Republicans. I can’t remember the exact figures but I’ve seen a poll in the Chronicle (Duke students journal) showing that 2/3 of Duke faculty members would vote for Obama. It also showed that those who contributed financially to Obama’s campaign were ten times as many as those who contributed to McCain’s.
    In addition, we should take into account that economists are not only the big names who work in Business Schools and private univeristies and earning a lot, there are plenty of them working in state universities who are among the middle class that would certainly benefit from Obama’s tax cut (I’ve always thought that the world would be in a better situation if individuals only voted for their own selfish interests …).
    The result of all that is that the real issue at stake here is not political but sociological.

  4. I think that it was not always the case that Obama had the economist class/professional support. Early on in the campaign his talk of renegotiating NAFTA raised many highbrows, mostly less thick than mine, and the suggestion that he was a protectionist. This argument was good enough for many Nobel laureates to sign up for McCain. I think the financial crisis however showed a rather puzzled McCain and a far cooler Obama and that may have helped convince many voters, economists included.

    And of course, as Yann notes, they are people like everyone else. They laugh, they cry, they bleed, they vote.

  5. So I take from your response that economists are conservative.

    My thinking is, of course, influenced by Bryan Caplan — his results show that Yann is correct, professors in general are left leaning, but economists are less so among professors. It remains an empirical question — economists are more right than the public, professors are more left than the public which effect dominates the interaction of this group? I would guess the professorship — since there are plenty of places to use an Econ degree outside of academia. However, the recognition that economics professors prefer conservative policies is relative either to other faculty or to the general public. Here it seems that the question is about the general public.

    Tiago’s last statement implies that even if an economist identifies with the left, he will not do so at the expense of his identity with being an economist. Protectionism regardless of who supports it, goes against the economic consensus. One would be hopelessly conflicted if they let their political bias subvert their commitment to their profession.

  6. My statement does not imply what you say. When an economist writes or speaks in public as an economist, when he performs this identity, he will more often that not stay within a certain range of subjects and opinions. (I am working to show this empirically for Newsweek)

    There are exceptions, radical economists for instance, you would have found them staffing John Edwards’ campaign (famously, once the Jesse Jackson campaign and its rainbow coalition). These same radical economists are not always comfortable with their identity as economists.

    I think there is a defined cultural script that “economists” as characters will often read, reenact publicly.

  7. It is clear that you disagree, but I am unclear on what you are taking issue with. What exactly is a radical economist, for example? Is this someone who teaches at UM Amherst (see paper on Radical Economics package). If so what does this have to do with John Edwards campaign? If not, how do you use the term in a different way?

    What I think you are going to have to convince me of is that there is some air-tight definition of an economist. Just because someone has a PhD in economics, teaches economics,or wears an Adam Smith tie does not mean what they do is economics. It would be quite easy for any of us to support a position, a political candidate. However, what we publish is peer-reviewed and has the mantle of science. There is a difference between these two activities.

    I am not convinced that you are not saying precisely what I said — there is a conflict between the professional activities and the private activities. We don’t evaluate all activities of an economist as economics.

    Consider this question: Do demand curves slope downwards?

    You are going to have to demonstrate to me that a economist for the Edwards campaign is still meaningfully called an economist when he denys this fact simplly because it helps his candidate. You have lost me on how your view reconciles this disconnect.

  8. Do we disagree? I didn’t think I was taking a position that invited disagreement. I am the most relativist of social historians, for me “economist” is anyone that writes that label next to their name and that gets interviewed/surveyed as a instance of the profession.

    I say that behind the Edwards campaign were radical economists because I saw the list of names, and I know their work and their history. If they deny that demand curves slope downwards I don’t know but if they did it would not disqualify them from being economists.

    I am totally unengaged by refereeing definitions for economics. Economics is whatever society and culture (or parts thereof) defines it to be. How can one read history and claim otherwise?

  9. I assume you would recognize the importance of definitions in general.

    I still cannot relate your point about “radical” to both how I see it used in the case of history of economic thought and how you are using it for the edwards campaign. You would have to tell me if you thought Marxists were “radical” and in what sense. I would label them as conservative in the sense that the theory has changed very little in a century and a half.

    I can only assume you find the distinction uninteresting. That is fine, but suggesting that careful use of language is a meaningless pursuit is an indirect way of dismissing the point.

    At the end of the day I know how I would apply and defend the word. I also know that over the whole of humanity this word is used in different ways. Until now, I assumed that you had an idea about how you wanted to use the word. This is what I was driving at.

    To answer your question: We only disagree to the extent that what I am able to glean from your comments is different than your intention. Having said that, you seem to not be interested in reconciling that miscommunication.

    On the issue of whether or not a shoe is a shoe if it is called a hat, I further assert that the profession of economics has an established way of determining what is economics. If there are meaingful distinctions, this would be a fun conversation. However, these are not discrete, that I will grant. But, it makes no sense to call what an economist does who is digging in a flower bed, “economics.” I think this stretches the bounds of logic.

  10. Dear Michael,

    I look forward to our continued discussion when you will surely order my messy mind and return logic to my world.

    Affectionately yours,

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