I secretly enjoy it when people go off on rants about the liberal Ivory Tower of academia; it gives me an opportunity to wait until the silly David Horowitz talking points stop flowing from their talk-holes and ask them a few specific questions about the ideological makeup of the typical academic community.

The truth is that the OMG LIBRUL BRAINWASHING hypothesis stands up well only under the conditions necessary for any right wing pet theory to hold up: cherry pick some confirming evidence and ignore everything else. Sure, you're going to find a bunch of bleeding hearts in the Sociology department. Anthropology is basically a hippie commune. Don't even ask about the "Cultural/Media Studies" departments. OK, great. We've just identified about 2% of the faculty and departments at any major university. Now let's take a stroll over to the business school. Or the law school. Or the Econ department. Bastions of left-wing rhetoric, right?

The reality is that every department on every campus could be teeming with True Believer socialists committed to brainwashing their students and the level of indoctrination wouldn't hold a candle to the average two course Macro/Micro sequence in Economics. This is not to say that Econ professors are especially conniving, ideological, or bad at teaching. The problem is simply that teaching Economics in the modern American educational system means teaching Neoliberalism. It's basically Intro to Hayek and Friedman. Fukuyama may have overstated things by declaring the End of History, but we've certainly seen something close to it in Economics. There is nothing but Neoliberalism now. Everything else is quaint, referred to only as a historical curiosity, and worth knowing only inasmuch as it sets up the victorious tomahawk dunks of Neoliberalism.

Some young Harvard students have made waves recently by doing the sort of thing only college undergrads have enough self-importance to do when they walked out of Greg Mankiw's Intro to Macroeconomics class and forwarded an open letter to the media to air their grievances. Mankiw's intellectual dishonesty is well known to veteran readers of this forum, and apparently his teaching is as well rounded as his journalism and commentary. That is, his students seem to think he's teaching a 16 week infomercial for his textbook and the One True Path to Economic Righteousness.

This is news because it happened at Harvard and to an economist with a non-negligible public profile. The reality, though, is that this is pretty much par for the course in that field. Introductory economics classes, as a prerequisite for admission to business schools, pretty much give the Alex P. Keatons of the world what they want. These departments think that intellectual diversity means throwing in a reading from Robert Reich.

This is traditionally justified with appeals to Neoliberalism's often touted empirical rigor. It is "positive" and highly Scientific, thus it can reasonably be put forth as the One True Economics. It's not that economics curricula are biased, it's just that there is only one economic school of thought that makes sense! What do we need multiple theories for when we already have one that explains everything?

Oddly enough, educating Americans to believe that there is one correct economics seems to be correlated with our collective inability to consider any real alternatives politically. Perhaps this is why our solution to every economic dilemma is, "Do it again, only harder." What was that definition of insanity again?

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  1. JimD Says:

    As an economist who sometimes comes by here, I'd like to offer a dissenting opinion. Mankiw's textbook (and most standard economics courses) aren't driven by "Hayek and Friedman" . Much of the time is taken up by fairly mundane topics such as supply and demand, cost curves and the like.

    Furthermore, the book (and the courses) are quite consistent with government-run health care, a stimulus program, greater regulation of banking and the financial system and a host of other "liberal" policies.

    It's true that there's almost no discussion of Marxist economics, and if that's the criticism, then fine. But to define one course by the politics of one professor, seems an unreasonable way to judge the class.

  2. Burple Says:

    Buddy of mine was the outside member on a dissertation defense in the top-30 econ department at our mega public U a while ago. Student says, the results of these analyses didn't conform to the theory, so we threw out the data. My buddy nearly falls out of his chair. The economists nodded sagely as if all was well. I think that's all you need to know about economics as it is mostly practiced.

  3. jazzbumpa Says:

    JimD –

    It's not just that there is no discussion of Marx – though, I hope, you will grant that that is a valid criticism; it's that Keynes has totally gone down the memory hole as well.

    It's quite striking that the open letter mentions Keynes,


    but the response mentions Marx – as you have. (unfortunately, I cannot come up with the link.) This is the typical conservative trick of changing the subject.

    Krugman has beat this drum repeatedly – the Chicago school's implicit denial that Keynes ever existed. This is the big problem, and here in liquidity trap land, it's especially relevant.


  4. vghoul Says:

    Living with someone who's in a Public Admin program, at the moment, I hear a lot about this. It seems like Economists have a pretty big chip on their shoulders about how THIS IS HARD SCIENCE AND NOT SOME KIND OF PSEUDO-SCIENCE LIKE PSYCHOLOGY OR SOCIOLOGY I guess because it's a way of talking about psychology and sociology that involves math and charts and shit. Oh, and operating within the confines of a sort of Euclidean pseudo-reality and mistaking it for Actual Reality. That's pretty damn scientific.