A Well-Known Liberal Bias

Professors on America’s college campuses are politically quite liberal compared with the general public.  A 2005 study that was discussed widely in the popular press at the time reported that perhaps as many as 70 percent of college professors were self-described liberals.  A similar 2007 study by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons reported that roughly 10 percent of faculty members described themselves as far left while virtually none self-identified as far right.  The Gross and Simmons study also showed that in the Social Sciences, roughly 17 percent of the faculty identify as Marxists. 

It is not obvious why American college faculty members have such strong liberal political views.  Many conservatives argue that it is due to discrimination in hiring and that the students receive a sharply biased education as a consequence.  I don’t think that the intellectual capacities of conservatives are below that of liberals but I suppose it could be a possible explanation.  My own guess is that it is due to selection on attitudes towards accepting received wisdom as truth.  As I mentioned in a previous post, academics are encouraged to break new ground or even to overturn established ideas.  Einstein is an excellent example of such a thinker.  So are Stephen Hawking, John Maynard Keynes, Alfred Blalock, etc.*  Deliberately setting out to tear down established parts of your field requires a certain mindset and this mindset might be more common with people who have liberal political views.  (While it is clear that faculty on American college campuses are quite liberal I am not convinced that we need to do anything about it.  If the best chemists and physicists also happen to be Democrats then so be it.  Particularly if they confine their teaching to their area of expertise, I wouldn’t think political bias by itself should be a problem.) 

Another possibility is that, as Paul Krugman has written on a few occasions, “the facts have a well-known liberal bias.”  I’m not entirely sure I know what he means by this.  It could be that Krugman is thinking mostly about the tension between facts and far-right positions.  Creationist ideas don’t really survive close contact with the facts.  Extreme supply-side economic ideas don’t either. 

The 2005 study presented results on political views by department.  As a field, economics ranks as one of the least stereotypically liberal, and most conservative, fields on campus.  While I cannot think of a single Republican in my own department (and no, I’m not a Republican), it is quite common to hear faculty members emphasizing the benefits of limited regulation, the gains from trade, and the harm caused by market intrusions like minimum wages, capital taxation and import tariffs.  I am quite sure that many of the economists in my department would be viewed as radical right-wing conservatives by members of other departments at Michigan.  Let me use Paul Krugman, a self-proclaimed liberal, as an example again.  If you read Peddling Prosperity or Pop Internationalism you will find this self-proclaimed liberal touting the virtues of trade and the folly of poorly thought-out market interventions being discussed at the time.  Krugman is not an outlier either.  My colleague Miles Kimball’s blog is titled Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal – disclosing both his liberal motives and his more libertarian/supply-side/conservative perspective. 

I suspect that the relatively high proportion of conservative views among economics faculty is largely due to contact with the data and with standard economic analysis.  In economics it seems like the facts and the analysis have much more of a conservative slant than a liberal one.  It really is true that taxing labor income reduces labor supply (a little).  It really is true that extending unemployment benefits encourages people to delay looking for a job (a little).  It really is true that taxation can reduce employment demand; that excessive business regulation seems to be correlated with reduced levels of business formation; that union concentration has a detrimental effect on industries and on and on.  Moreover, the theoretical analysis seems to fit with the observations.  Now of course, a liberal’s response to this would normally be “OK, perhaps these effects are there in the data, but the magnitude of the effects is usually pretty small.”  That’s often true.  It’s certainly true with the minimum wage.  At its current level, and I suspect at the proposed new $10.10 level, the effects of the minimum wage on employment will probably be modest.  Republicans tend to describe the minimum wage as though it is a “job killer” that could cripple the economy – a description which is completely over the top.  That type of exaggeration is not really serving them well and it might be what Krugman has in mind when he says that the facts have a liberal bent. 

Nevertheless, many basic empirical patterns and basic economic ideas have a fairly conservative profile.  I suspect that one of the major reasons why faculty in economics departments are so much more conservative than faculty in other departments is that they are constantly confronted with these facts and with reasoning that runs counter to stereotypical liberal positions, and it is difficult to maintain these positions when one is faced with the analysis in the field.  Economics constantly impresses on its students the benefits that flow from allocations guided by self-interest while stressing the lost opportunities associated with poorly planned government interventions, even when the intentions are good. 

The 2007 study’s findings about Marxism are notable.  I suspect that the Marxists in the Social Sciences and elsewhere on campus are, for the most part, not in economics departments.  Marx is just not taken very seriously by economists anymore and hasn’t been for quite some time.  In most economics departments you are much more likely to find the ideas of Friedman than of Marx.  (And that’s a good thing.) 

Of course, not all free market ideas fit neatly into the standard conservative talking points.  Economists almost surely are more open to legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution, etc.  They are also more likely to see the benefits that come from allowing free immigration.  None of these are staples of conservatism.  

On the whole however, it would seem like the “facts” in economics don’t really have a strong liberal bias.  On balance, they probably break the other way.  

* OK, Alfred Blalock seems a bit out of place on this list.  Who is Alfred Blalock you might ask?  He is actually one of the pioneers of modern heart surgery (though I understand that the famous procedure named after him – the Blalock-Thomas-Tausig shunt – isn’t, technically speaking, heart surgery).  The reason I know about Blalock is that I recently saw the movie “Something the Lord Made” which is about Blalock and the legendary surgical technician Vivian Thomas who was instrumental in developing the procedure.  I *highly* recommend this movie.  The performances by Alan Rickman and Mos Def are both outstanding and the movie provides a compelling look at both race relations at the time, and medical history.  

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53 thoughts on “A Well-Known Liberal Bias

  1. I believe he is just paraphrasing Colbert:

    “I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

    • Definitely though I think he says that because he feels that the facts really do support relatively more liberal positions. I assume he also writes it to annoy conservatives a bit.

      • Probably to annoy conservatives, and probably to annoy conservatives when the facts contradict their predictions.

        Also, I know the BT shunt because my brother had one. He just had his 30 year followup to replace the pulmonary valve. One of the cardiologists mentioned that his pulmonary artery was still narrow because of the shunt. My brother is a worrier so I reminded him this was just a consequence of taking the artery out of his arm before he worried too much. When the EKG tech heard that he exclaimed “He’s got a classic BT shunt!?” to which I replied, “I guess.” since I’m not completely familiar with the exact procedure he had and whether it qualifies as a classic BT shunt since I’m not a cardiologist.

        Also, I saw “Something the Lord Made..”. It was pretty good.

  2. “The reason I know about Blalock is that I recently saw the movie ‘Something the Lord Made’ … I *highly* recommend this movie. ”

    Here, here. That was a good movie.

  3. I think what you’re getting at is that economists tend to have some classical liberal (libertarian) views rather than conservative views. You can justify legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution and free immigration under classical liberalism. You an also justify less government interference, less central planning, and free trade under classical liberalism. Some economists may be identified by others and themselves as “conservative” since a lot of people associate conservatism with less government intervention in the economy, but it’s technically not correct because true American conservatism involves foreign policy and social views that these economists generally don’t endorse.

    This post reminds me of a couple of articles…
    One from Bryan Caplan: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/12/the_curious_abs.html
    and one Greg Mankiw: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/business/how-economics-has-benefited-from-immigration.html?_r=0

  4. You make a thoughtful case, but I don’t think the conclusions follow.
    Yes, income taxes, unemployment benefits etc make a difference; but having acknowledged that it’s only a small difference you then conclude that even these small differences are still the most important factors in policy making. They are not. These small differences you call economic reality are irrelevant in the broader sphere of economic governance, and yet leaders give them primacy.
    It’s the equivalent of NASA planning a moon shot starting with the principles of string theory.

    • I don’t think they are the most important factors in policy making necessarily but they do seem to be present in the data. They certainly aren’t “irrelevant.”

      • But that’s the point. The left does not deny that they’re irrelevant. They just say they’re not everything. While the right often does deny that other effects (like aggregate demand and distributional issues) which can be very big, are totally irrelevant.

  5. US discourse employs a weird definition of Liberal. For instance, Keynes is a notorious homosexual liberal limey, Krugman is a nutty ex-economist liberal pundit, and Clive Crook is the gold standard for balanced moderate centrism.

    On this definition of liberal, the facts do have a pronounced liberal bias.

  6. “I suspect that the relatively high proportion of conservative views among economics faculty is largely due to contact with the data and with standard economic analysis”

    Considering the long record of fantasy land economic theories bandied about in macro econ, this is teally hard to swallow; but what really gives me a stimach ache is the idea that other disciplines (like sociology and anthropology) do not spend a lot of time close to their data; but then macro econ achieves its hubris only by being able to keep the lives of actual people as far away as possible.

    • I’m not sure that conservative perspectives are more prevalent among macroeconomists. They might be. Also, I would suspect that sociologists and anthropologists are constantly in contact with their data — it’s just that their data deals with sociology and anthropology and not economics. For all I know, the sociological / anthropological data supports a more liberal outlook …

      • Chris, as Jcob pointed out, much of the elite macro world is in la-la land. I’d add that there doesn’t seem to be much taste in the micro world to impose some data-based discipline.

        Also, we are currenty suffering through a depression due chiefly to the fact that we followed the advice of the economis profession and deregulatedour financial markets. Basically, economists painted an Econ 101 fantasy picture.

  7. I think what you’re getting at is that economists tend to have some classical liberal (libertarian) views rather than conservative views. You can justify legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution and free immigration under classical liberalism. You an also justify less government interference, less central planning, and free trade under classical liberalism. Some economists may be identified by others and themselves as “conservative” since a lot of people associate conservatism with less government intervention in the economy, but it’s technically not correct because true American conservatism involves foreign policy and social views that these economists generally don’t endorse.

    This post reminds me of a couple of articles…

    One from Bryan Caplan: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/12/the_curious_abs.html

    and one Greg Mankiw: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/business/how-economics-has-benefited-from-immigration.html?_r=0

  8. Let me bring in an international perspective from Germany, where my at least casual impression is that the professorate is politically more conservative than the US one (it may also be habitually more conservative, but that’s a different matter, though potentially related). I would certainly guess that the overwhelming majority of professors in law, economics, business and possibly medicine tend to be conservative or at least right at the center. Sure, we have also the marxist sociologist in Germany, but those are marginalized.

    What’s the difference? Differently from the US there is a political representation of conservatism in Germany that has almost no strong undercurrent of massive anti-intellectualism (in fact, the traditionally Catholic milieu from where the Christiandemocrats came from is rather academic and intellectual, think former Cardinal Ratzinger). Simply put, if evangelicals determine the party line, or at least massively influence it, then professors will tend to stay away no matter how fiscally conservative and foreign policy hawks they may be. Similarly, for people who on their daily basis work and collaborate well with foreigners, as professors almost surely do, any nativist instincts must be quite alien. Now, there are some nativist impulses amongst German conservatives, but not as radical as we have seen in the US (I am talking about Christian Democrats, not the quasi-Nazi parties, which, fortunately are rather marginalized in modern Germany).

    In contrast, the left in Germany comes directly from the union and workers movement and as such is not at all disinclined to anti-intellectual impulses. There is a famous incident in which then chancellor Schroeder destroyed a ministerial candidate from the other side by simply calling him “this professor”, the nutty never uttered, but understood by everybody.

    • I am a German citizen as well and gotta call you out on this bullshit. “This professor” failed to back up his claim of the hundreds of tax loopholes that his ready-made plain would close … and the former chancellor called him out on his lie.

      About the “unions and evangelicals are anti-intellectual but Catholics right-wingers are intellectual” nonsense, it speaks for itself.

      You are right though that most econ professors in Germany are conservative. They are also radically anto-Keynesian, fine with millions of unemployed in Europe and too dumb or coward to point out the actual causes of the crisis. In short, they are wrong.

  9. Let me add another thought that might bring in another reason for self-selection.

    At least some versions of the left deeply believe in the malleability of humankind, in social engineering towards a better mankind, at the very least in community organizing. Well, as teachers of young students we almost surely must have these impulses as well. Otherwise wouldn’t be completely cynical? Deep down, I would guess, professors think they can change something, and the bigger the change the better, they might think. This seems to me a characteristic for many leftist (and, granted, fascist) movements in human history. That’s why political advocacy is so widespread on college campuses, I suspect.

    In contrast, at least some versions of conservatism seem much more sceptical about change, about changeability at least through political movements (I know there are counter examples like Thatcherism), about the good in humankind. They tend to take human beings as they are, not as they want them to be (I am not talking about the evangelical right here), and to take small piecemeal steps towards building better institutions. That’s much less glamourous and much more boring than some charismatic colleagues in the academe might be able to stand.

    • More nonsense about the utopian lefies and the realistic right-wingers. I am a slightly misanthropic leftwinger and I do not believe that humans are inherently good. Which is precisely why you have to create SYSTEMS in which it is harder for people to be evil. I don’t believe that I or you or John Die are good people who would care about their fellows in dire straits which is precisely why we need stuff like public healthcare or basic income. Or to quote Oscar Wilde: “The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim.”

      Right-wingers like you are for charity because it creates this warm feeling, you feel sooo good about yourself when you give something to the poor and needy. Left-wingers who are far more realistic about human nature know that people are not good so want to create a systemic solution to a systemic problem.

      By the way, fascists were right-wingers and not left-wingers. Pretty big lie. Not that it is unusual to detect the real reactionary or fascist face beneath the seemingly docile mask of moderate conservatism.

      • About the “political advocacy” on campuses which you seem to dislike, the proper word for this is democracy. Not much of a surprise either to see a right-winger having a problem with this, it were after all left-wingers who cut off the head of the King of France, it were left-wingers who wanted to establish a democracy in Germany while the right-wingers still wanted the Kaiser.

    • “At least some versions of the left deeply believe in the malleability of humankind, in social engineering towards a better mankind, at the very least in community organizing. ”

      Right-wingers believe that just as much, but use different words, generally pretending that they are ‘restoring’ something. For example, any right-wing econ professor urging a fee-market utopia is advocating very radical social engineerng.

  10. “In economics it seems like the facts and the analysis have much more of a conservative slant than a liberal one.”

    First, you have to be really careful to consider conservatives *today*. This is a whole new breed, a historic extreme – light-years to the right, and detached from reality and science and just thinking beyond simple-minded dogma, even downright hostile to it. At the same time, liberals are substantially to the right of the liberals a generation or two ago, and a lot more technocratic and sophisticated.

    So, first off, are you living in the past and passing it off as today, or are we talking about today? Because Richard Nixon would be considered not a conservative today on domestic policy – but far left, even offering a universal health insurance plan to the left of Obamacare, including a federalization of Medicaid!

    Now let’s consider your “much more” conservative slant.

    Liberals: Raising tax rates on the wealthy will have little or no effect on their work effort, and may even decrease their work effort (income and substitution effects)

    Conservatives: Raising taxes on the wealthy will cause the job creators to hire much less. Cutting taxes on the wealthy will cause them to work so much harder than they are now that it will actually make the government more revenue as a result of the tax cut, which hopefully will be gigantic.

    What economic science says:

    From MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, in his 2007 textbook, “Public Finance and Public Policy”, 2nd edition, 2007:

    Changes in tax rates appear to have relatively modest effects on total gross income; the total amount of income actually generated through work or savings does not respond in a sizable way to taxation.

    – Page 734

    Now, which side does this fit far better? It looks like clearly the liberals. And I could go on and on, and hope to continue, depending on time.

  11. Next, let’s talk about trade.

    One of my favorite undergrad econ professors said of trade, paraphrasing: with trade, usually the gainers gains outweigh the losers losses, but the losers’ losses can be great, so you can make it so that no one loses by taking some of the gains from the gainers and giving them to the losers. In addition, there are potentially large externalities to consider, so things like pollution stipulations may make sense.

    Now I’m going to state the basic position of the Democratic Party on trade, again, of today, not of 1968, or a caricature of 1968. The Democratic party of today favors free trade by and large, especially those in control. Look at how much political capital Clinton and Gore expended to push through NAFTA. But they favor stipulations to protect against negative externalities like environmental pollution, and they favor attachments to help the losers from freer trade, like job retraining and transition programs.

    Republicans favor free trade more than Democrats, although with the Tea Party this is a lot less than it used to be, but they’re completely against any attempts to recognize the losers from freer trade and to compensate them – and that’s an important part of the economics. And they’re completely against any attempt to recognize and try to address any externalities, like global warming, or other market problems, and that’s against the economics.

    So, on balance, I would say that the Democratic position is closer to economic science than the Republican, which recognizes only the good that economic science finds with trade, but none of the bad that the science finds, or advocates to address it.

    Other issues quickly – and today, not 40 years ago, and even a caricature then:

    1) Public Investment – Liberals: Cost-Benefit analysis, recognizing the gigantic externalities, free rider problems, natural monopoly, non-rival goods exploding in importance in the modern digital world, and other market problems that exist in the real world, and the benefits from addressing them. Conservatives: Pretty much all non-military government spending is a waste and horribly inefficient. The pure free market, or nearly pure free market, is almost always, or flat-out always, better.

    Clearly the liberal position is far closer to economic science.

    2) Regulation for asymmetric and poor information – Liberals: The world today is extremely complicated. Asymmetric information is a very serious and costly problem, in its direct costs as well as all the wasted time and effort people must invest to defend against being victimized. Conservatives: What?? What’s that? Some liberal plot? Almost all regulation, possibly all regulation, even the most basic health and safety regulation for severe public threats, is highly inefficient and should be ended.

    Clearly the liberal position is far closer to economic science.

    3) The economics of healthcare – Liberals: The evidence and logic is massive, a strong government role in healthcare has resulted in healthcare as good as, or better, than in the U.S. at ½ to ¼ the cost per person. The externalities, asymmetric information, and monopoly power in this market are enormous and profound, and the same for medical science and research. We should at least have single-payer, with strong regulation on top, and a very large role in medical research. Conservatives: Pure free market, with little or no regulation, and little or no recognition of market problems.

    Clearly the liberal position is far closer to economic science.

    4) Monetary economics – Liberals: Basically, monetary stimulus can help alleviate economic cycles and should be used. The costs of both inflation and unemployment should be considered in proportion to their costs to total societal utility. Conservatives: See Ayn Rand. The gold standard would be best, and at least zero inflation should be the only goal if not the gold standard.

    Clearly the liberal position is far closer to economic science.

    And I could go on from here. When you take the actual liberal positions *today* and the actual conservative positions *today*, and you consider all of economics, not just classic economics only, and even then applied literally to reality, rather than an intelligent interpretation from the model to reality, then economics is clearly far closer to the liberal positions than the conservative ones.

    • Good post and I agree overall, House is plain wrong. The only economists who are worthwhile reading are centrists, liberals or lefties. Conservative economists sooner or later lie. Let’s take Greg Mankiw and John Taylor, they both did fantastic technical work during the eighties. But nowadays they are blunt liars who hope to get a position in a future conservative government. And that’s just two moderate conservatives and not the loonies from around the Great Lakes …

      But amidst this let’s not forget that the contemporary center-left and right in the Western World are both supporting neoliberal positions. So I would claim that proper economics supports a left-liberal / social democrat position … and the Democratic Party of the US is neither. Sure, on social issues it is fairly left but on everything else, including economics, it would be a centre-right party in Europe.

      Scandinavian countries are fairly left-liberal / social democratic and they all have high GDPs, decent wealth and income equality and they all score high on all kind standard of living indices. So it is not just theoretical Stiglitzian economics which emphasizes the abundance of market failures and the influence of distribution about allocation (his shar cropping paper was seminal) that supports social democracy, it is also plain empirics.

      • Speaking of Taylor, who is probably one of the most renown Conservative macroeconomists, is still touting supply-side issues for our poor economy. Instead of recognizing that we have a severe aggregate demand problem, he claims that Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, and political uncertainty created by the Obama administration are the main culprits holding back recovery. Then he further claims that targeted fiscal policy right now, would not only be useless, but harmful.

        Taylor’s conservative stance is not supported by the facts and just outright absurd. Then again, most conservative economic stances are not supported by the facts. Instead, most right wing economic arguments either boil down to blaming the government while championing unfettered free markets. As reality has shown, we simply do not live in that type of world.

  12. Setting aside all the post-modern stuff about “facts” as rhetorical devices, there is a body of fact and fact-based opinion in many areas of scholarship. There is a sort of progress in the accumulation of fact. Political views brought into the debate don’t, in an honest debate, change the facts. If it happens that so-called “conservative” thought is at odds with geology, it doesn’t matter at all to the reality of what’s in the ground.

    If so-called “liberal” thought is at odds with economics (Noah raises doubts), it does matter to economic outcomes. That’s yer Lucas critique, right there. Our views of economics determine economic policy, which goes some way to determining economic outcomes.

    Now, there are areas in which chemistry and medicine interact with policy. DDT is bad for bird fertility. DDT gets banned. That policy decision does not, however, change the chemistry and biology in question. They remain the same, regardless of policy. That is not true in the same sense with economics. If, for instance, US policy makers had not been enamored with the notion that investor discipline makes bubbles unlikely to the point that no harm could come of them, we might have avoided the Great Recession.

  13. Chris House writes, of the tendency for many scientists to be liberal, “Deliberately setting out to tear down established parts of your field requires a certain mindset and this mindset might be more common with people who have liberal political views.  (While it is clear that faculty on American college campuses are quite liberal I am not convinced that we need to do anything about it.  If the best chemists and physicists also happen to be Democrats then so be it.  Particularly if they confine their teaching to their area of expertise, I wouldn’t think political bias by itself should be a problem.)”

    I am afraid that this misses the main point of deciding to go into science (and art) — perhaps missing it, by substituting the decision to study economics. Young people become scientists (and artists) out of love of knowledge and beauty, and out of curiosity about the universe. This is not the same thing as “self-interest” or “economic rationality”, which are given to you the first day of Econ 101. Other young people usually are NOT driven (initially) by fears of getting a job and making money. We know (from experimental data) that economists are skewed in this direction unnaturally. It is a faulty wrench in economists’ purchase upon reality.

    Meanwhile conservatives are far more emotionally disposed — obsessed, even — with the idea that most other people do things by self-interest.

    It should be no wonder that the economics “data” brought forward, in support of the thesis of self-interest, are almost entirely accounts of money. And that fact that the data are oftentimes just barely conclusive, in favor of the the conservative view, ought to tell us something rather different than we have been hearing.

    In my opinion the idea that there is a prior “economic reality” which naturally inculcates the virtue of self-interest could be an historic mistake. Or perhaps we could say, this direction for economics may have been of good use in early modernism (i.e. the time period from the inception of industrialism through much of the 19th century). But it may be worse than useless, now. The underlying idea that conservatives have, of some unalterable human nature, may be in gross error — yet has perpetuated itself via the intellectual status of the profession of economics, now to our detriment.

    Instead of focusing on how government welfare destroys souls, conservatives might consider whether it is time to jump over an historical boundary, and find ways to make people smarter, happier, more curious, and unworried about money.

    • “Meanwhile conservatives are far more emotionally disposed — obsessed, even — with the idea that most other people do things by self-interest.”

      The classic example of this is the ubiquitous denialist trope that climate scientists are pressing the alarm button in order to secure research grants. Given the disparity of financial resources behind the respective camps, that allegation is way too laughable to be disingenuous rhetoric. It can only be projection.

  14. I must question your determination that ‘we really do not have to worry about many professors having a liberal bias’. These professors brain wash the easily impressionable students who have little real life experience. As a result, they graduate thinking economists like Say and Hayek were nothing but empty suits. Like every other field, economics can also be used to indoctrinate in the ways of collectivism. Besides, I do not wish to spend $50K per year to have my son think Krugman is an intellectual giant, when the reality is exact opposite.

  15. Oh, come on:

    “It is not obvious why American college faculty members have such strong liberal political views.”

    Yes, it is obvious. Controlling for education, higher incomes are correlated with lower liberalism. Controlling for income, higher educational levels are correlated with higher liberalism. One would expect the most liberal people to have a lot of education and little money, and the least liberal people to have little education and a lot of money, and while that’s not perfectly true, the tendency is clearly in that direction. Professional athletes are solidly conservative Republicans, and college professors are disproportionately liberals and Democrats. That’s just rudimentary social science. If you wanted a slightly more textured explanation, you might note that one of our major political parties has been explicitly anti-intellectual since at least Nixon/Agnew—“pointy headed intellectual,” “Ivy league,” and “college professor” are derogatory statements in a Republican primary—and suppose that maybe after forty years people’s personal feelings might contribute to the trend.

    “Creationist ideas don’t really survive close contact with the facts. Extreme supply-side economic ideas don’t either.”

    Did you rush off to lunch just then, or was there some other reason you ended the list there rather than continue with climate change denial or the belief that the president’s birth certificate is a fake? What three of these things have in common (creationism might have shrunk a bit recently; I’m not sure) isn’t just that they’re obviously wrong, it’s that they’re obviously wrong shibboleths of conservative Republicans. Climate change denial has increased among GOP voters, even as evidence of climate change has become more undeniable. You could add to this the “ACA’s individual mandate is like making people buy broccoli!” argument, which—I’m sorry—is totally stupid and which nobody at all took seriously before 2012.

    “As a field, economics ranks as one of the least stereotypically liberal, and most conservative, fields on campus.”

    I am guessing this is a case of econ departments being “only a little more than 50% liberal” vis a vis the more dominantly liberal departments elsewhere, rather than them actually falling on the conservative side, but that’s just a guess. Nota bene that the two big subsets of conservative/liberal beliefs as measured in American politics are socially liberal (or conservative) and economically (or fiscally) liberal (or conservative). Try this thought experiment: Imagine an alternate reality where no one really cared about economic policy, and the two big sets of issues determining people’s votes were instead the social issues (gay marriage, abortion, the drug war) and the question whether the English language could best be understood through a prescriptivist or a descriptivist lens. I’m guessing you suspect, as I do, that in such a reality, econ departments would be full of liberal geeks and the literature department would be the one that attracted a rough balance of liberals and conservatives.

    • “Professional athletes are solidly conservative Republicans” — is this true? I’ve never heard that before.

      The list of crazy far-right ideas is quite long. I have to stop it somewhere.

      • Anecdata only; I don’t think there’s ever been a real study. But I’ve heard of many MLB clubhouses that are heavily born-again Christian; the Colorado Rockies during their pennant run were widely reported to hold team prayer sessions. Luke Scott felt comfortable enough with birtherism that he gave a lengthy public interview on the reasons he thinks the president is a Kenyan. The anti-gay bias of the NBA and NFL are pretty well known, although given the baseline of the locker room, I think that might be pretty weak beer, as evidence of political bent. Republican presidential candidates have always received more contributions from pro athletes than their Democratic opponents, although the NBA is closer than most and Barack Obama closed the gap a bit, too (I suspect these are related, as Obama’s famously a big basketball fan). Professional athletes that turn into politicians all become Republicans, with the solitary exception of Bill Bradley (this per NPR’s Frank Deford in 2006; there might be recent examples). All the rest you can think of, though? JC Watts, Jim Bunning, Jack Kemp. (Okay, there’s Fidel. But apparently he wasn’t really ever expected to crack the league.)

        Now, one caveat is that most or at least many athletes are mostly agnostic or want to keep it to themselves, politically, so it’s not like a traditional pro-Dem or pro-Rep constituency where the majority is visibly in one direction or the other. But those that are political do appear to be much more Republican than Democratic—there’s no liberal Democrat who would be the counter-point to Curt Schilling or Charles Barkley, for instance.

        That last name might mean something a bit extra to those who have been paying attention. There is no more Democratic constituency than African American voters. Jews, public school teachers, gays, nobody votes more reliably for Dems than Af Ams. Yet there’s no shortage of black athletes who affiliate as Republicans. If that subset splits, say, 50-50, that implies a 40-point swing in the direction of the Republicans.

        Wait: I just figured out I can make this point drastically shorter: Jackie Robinson was a Republican when he left baseball and supported Nixon on the trail. (Post Civil Rights Act and Southern Strategy, he switched to the Democrats, but that was a long time after he left baseball.)

        Re: the crazy right-wing ideas list being long, yes, that’s the point. And if they’re all “crazy far-right” ideas, then an awful lot of the Republican party is crazy and far-right. And that answers your question: What you consider crazy and far-right, the Republican party considers mainline conservatism. Is it any wonder people with Ph.D.’s look at today’s Republicans and conservatives and say no thanks?

      • … adding something that seems (at least to me) concordant with the bit about rich athletes being more conservative, there’s a thing at Slate (I know) about a British study finding that lottery winners instantly become more conservative.

  16. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll try to finish up with a few more main points:

    1) “It really is true that taxing labor income reduces labor supply (a little)”

    This is a very good example of what I find wrong with this post. You think this is proof that economics has a conservative bent, when it fact it strongly says the exact opposite. Conservatives *today* would argue vociferously that taxing labor doesn’t reduce labor supply only a little. They’d say it reduces it greatly, so greatly that tax cuts actually increase government revenue! This statement is much closer to the liberal view that the effects are small, and they can go either way.

    Then, I’d question with the veracity, or vagueness of the statement. For example, I learned it depends on which group is taxed. First, as an undergrad I learned of the backward bending labor supply curve, which I remember being told had empirical support.

    2) If you want to find out which side economic science thinks is closer to the truth, you have to consider all of economic science, not cherry pick, and only look at the classical factors, but not the long established market problems, like externalities, natural monopoly power, etc. (I use the word factors to stress that models only look at some of the factors, thus, no one model usually tells you the whole basic story alone, because it doesn’t consider all of the important factors.)

    It’s like if you’re comparing two bridges as an engineer, bridge L and bridge C, and you say I’ll only evaluate them based on the effects of some of the laws of physics. Bridge C may win that way, but then on first contact with reality, on first contact with all of the laws of physics, it tragically collapses.

    3) One of the strongest cases for your argument is unions. Economics finds many inefficiencies, and asks couldn’t the low skilled be helped just as much, in a much less costly way, via things like a reverse income tax, universal, high quality, free healthcare, preschool, and college, and so on. But if you look at the reasons given by the top economists for supporting unions, you find one important one is politics, or political economy. The rich have so much power to bribe (basically) and advertise; unions provide a counterweight to their ability to bend government to their will, when limiting the rich’s ability to bribe and propagandize is just not practically possible anytime soon. They greatly increase the political activity and voice of the lower skilled, and liberals. And there are also behavioral economics reasons given.

    • Hi Richard,

      I think I basically agree with most of your points here (I’m not sure about point 3 though). I also might agree with Noah’s comment that liberals had to move substantially to the right as our understanding of economics improved (and conservatives moved further to the right because they had the ability to). In the follow up post I talk briefly about externalities and classical market failures. I think these are the exceptions that prove the rule rather than the other way around. Put a little differently, if conservatives get you to start talking about externalities and classical inefficiencies then I think you have basically conceded the point.

      • You can call it exceptions that prove the rule, or whatever, but these things are nonetheless enormous. Ignore pollution externalities and the country becomes a cesspool, health falls apart, and the average lifespan plummets by decades. And eventually the planet is devastated with global warming. Ignore the positive externalites of basic scientific research, public education, non-rival goods in our advanced digital world, etc., and you plummet total societal utility and growth over the long run.

        Call these things what you will, but their effects are monumental and profound, The party that ignores them is vastly worse than the party that tries to carefully take them into account, weighing cost and benefits.

      • Which one is “the party that tries to carefully take them into account, weighing the cost and benefits”?

      • I wish I had the time to do this justice, but here goes: I think you’d be amazed to see what the Republican Party is really like today. There basically is no cost-benefit analysis, just simple-minded dogma, that’s not just anti-science; it’s anti-thinking beyond anything other than simple-minded unquestionable bromides. And this is not just the people on the fringes of the party – It’s those firmly in control. Also in control are Ayn Rand libertarians, and extreme plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, other billionaires, and their sympathizers and sycophants.

        Look at the Paul Ryan budget, which is astonishing. The evidence is mountainous that we should be spending vastly more on positive social NPV investment in things like basic scientific and medical research, advanced infrastructure, smart education spending, and universal high quality pre-school and other early life assistance. But the Ryan Budget goes radically in the exact opposite direction, slashing spending on these things to a level not seen since the 1950s!

        Externalities and other market problems are basically not considered at all in a cost-benefit analysis, as monumental as they are, because by dogma they do not exist.

        And Paul Ryan is the most powerful man in the Republican Party, except for perhaps the Koch brothers. This budget, or one similar, would pass if Republicans controlled both Houses and the Presidency. And these people would rather have a budget even much more extreme than that if they thought the political price would not be too great.

        So please, especially if you’re going to blog on things like this, read the Ryan budget. Read the positions on the Republican Party web site.

        Now, another issue is that if you’re going to do a cost-benefit analysis, it will matter how you weight the costs and benefits and what loss or gain criteria or function you use. If you’re an extreme libertarian, no benefit to society and future generations as a whole is worth taking even one penny involuntarily from even one person – And libertarians and plutocrats are firmly in control of the Republican Party today. I’m, by and large, utilitarian. What maximizes total societal utility, including for all future generations, is the main thing for me in a cost benefit analysis, with some concern about inequality of utils.

        This is largely the concern of Democrats today. There’s little wedding to any rigid simple dogma. They’re very practical and pragmatic about supporting whatever works best for society’s welfare. If you prove to them that certain regulation does more harm than good to total societal utility, the people in control of the Democratic party will, by and large, be fine with ending, or modifying, it. Please read the Democratic Party website.

        Now, of course this is modified by political pragmatism. They aren’t going to sacrifice massive political capital for a realtively unimportant issue, even if they truly think the other side is correct. Losing power over it, would do far more harm than good. There have to be political compromises. Those in control of the Democratic Party, including Barack Obama, would have much rather had single-payer, but it was this kind of compromise or nothing in their political estimation,

        Basically, it’s just you’re image of the two parties is terribly out of date, especially with the historic form the republican party has taken.

      • Sent the old version by mistake. I really like the new version better, especially noting positional externalities:

        I wish I had the time to do this justice, but here goes: I think you’d be amazed to find out what the Republican Party is really like today. There basically is no cost-benefit analysis, just simple-minded dogma, that’s not just anti-science; it’s anti-thinking beyond anything other than simple-minded unquestionable bromides. And this is not just the people on the fringes of the party – It’s those firmly in control. Also in control are Ayn Rand libertarians, and extreme plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, other billionaires, and their sympathizers and sycophants.

        Look at the Paul Ryan budget, which is astonishing. The evidence is mountainous that we should be spending vastly more on positive social NPV investment in things like basic scientific and medical research, advanced infrastructure, smart education spending, and universal high quality pre-school and other early life assistance. But the Ryan Budget goes radically in the exact opposite direction, slashing spending on these things to a level not seen since the 1950s!

        Externalities and other market problems are basically not considered at all in a cost-benefit analysis, as monumental and profound as they are (very much including positional externalities), because by dogma they do not exist.

        And Paul Ryan is the most powerful man in the Republican Party, except for perhaps the Koch brothers. This budget, or one similar, would pass if Republicans controlled both Houses and the Presidency. And these people would rather have a budget even much more extreme than that if they thought the political price would not be too great.

        So please, especially if you’re going to blog on things like this, read the Ryan budget. Read the positions on the Republican Party web site.

        Now, another issue is that if you’re going to do a cost-benefit analysis, it will matter how you weight the costs and benefits and what loss or gain criteria, or function, you use. If you’re an extreme libertarian, no benefit to society and future generations as a whole is worth taking even one penny involuntarily from even one person – And libertarians and plutocrats are firmly in control of the Republican Party today. I’m, by and large, utilitarian. What maximizes total societal utility, including for all future generations, is the main thing for me in a cost benefit analysis, with some concern about inequality of utils. So, externalities and public investment are enormous, as is the obviously ginormous plummeting of marginal utility per dollar, to name two of the biggest things.

        This is largely the concern of Democrats today, maximizing total societal utility. There’s little wedding to any rigid simple dogma to do it. They’re very practical and pragmatic about supporting whatever works best for society’s welfare. If you prove to them that certain regulation does more harm than good to total societal utility, the people in control of the Democratic party will, by and large, be fine with ending, or modifying, it. Please read the Democratic Party website.

        Now, of course this is modified by political pragmatism. They aren’t going to sacrifice massive political capital for a relatively unimportant issue, even if they truly think the other side is correct. Losing power over it would do far more harm than good. There have to be political compromises, and supporting some things you truly, and perhaps secretly, don’t like to get much bigger things you do like. For example, those in control of the Democratic Party, including Barack Obama, would have much rather had single-payer, or even something like the VA or NIH mixed in, but it was this kind of compromise or nothing in their political estimation.

        Basically, it’s just you’re image of the two parties is terribly out of date, especially with the historic form the Republican Party has taken.

      • Also, Krugman says something relevant about this today:

        On to the broader point. What one sees in this particular Mulligan piece is something I encounter all the time, in many contexts: the myth of the stupid progressive economist.

        It works like this: Conservatives in general, and conservative economists in particular, often have a very narrow vision of what economics is all about — namely supply, demand, and incentives. Anything that interferes with the sacred functioning of markets or reduces the incentive to produce must be a bad thing; any time a progressive economist supports policies that don’t fit neatly into this orthodoxy, it must be because he doesn’t understand Econ 101. And conservative economists are so sure of this that they can’t be bothered to actually read what the progressives write — at the first hint of deviation from laissez-faire, they stop paying attention and begin debating with the stupid progressive in their mind, not the real economist out there.

        At: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/stupidity-in-economic-discourse/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Opinion&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs&region=Body

        I think there’s also still the myth of the stupid progressive, and the clear-eyed economically sophisticated conservative. But it’s not the hippie days anymore. The difference between today’s conservatives, including those who control the Republican Party, and those of a generation or two ago is an amazing site to behold. And today’s Democrats are the party of Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama, getting advice from Joseph Stiglitz and Jon Gruber, and really implementing it to the extent they can given the political realities.

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  19. Adding on to some comments above:

    The classic position *claimed* by economists is that trade should be liberalized, and some compensation transferred to the losers.

    We’ve done the first, but we do not see a widespread call among economics professors to live up to that bargain.

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  23. Nozick has an essay somewhere offering an explanation of the pattern. His argument is that, as people grow up, they face two different status systems. One, school grades, is centralized, formal, based on something viewed as an objective measure of merit. One, social status, is decentralized and informal.

    People who do well in the first system are more likely to become academics. People who do well in the second, businessmen. The first system looks more like an administrative state, less like a market, so people who do well under it tend to be left.

    I don’t think your “open minded” explanation works in the current world. Universities are close to ideological monocultures. Holding left wing positions is easy if you don’t have an open mind, harder if you do. It would have been a better explanation at an earlier date, when left wing views were not yet dominant on the campus and so holding and defending them signaled an independent mind.

  24. The Liberal bias in Academia has the same explanation as the Conservative bias in Corporate Management; the cliche is based in fact. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

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