Me on elitism in economics

He [Cowen] said that he agreed with the idea that influence of economics comes from a relatively small number of institutions, and he thinks the number is shrinking. “What used to be something like a ‘top six’ has over time become the ‘top two,’ namely Harvard and MIT.”

Cowen said that he doesn’t “find that entirely ideal, by any means.” But he also said that those departments deserve praise for their work. “Harvard and MIT are in fact remarkably good at finding, evaluating and attracting top talent. It is stunning how good they are at this, and we should not begrudge them that,” he said. (Cowen is an example, having earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. His undergraduate alma mater is George Mason, where he teaches.)

The centralization of top departments, he said, worries him less than do “pressures for conformity.”

Cowen added that he is sympathetic to Vigdor’s criticism, but that the centralization may be “an opportunity” for departments outside the elites to shine. “The centralized centers of influence are going to miss important ideas in their early stages,” Cowen said. “Both public choice and experimental economics came out of non-top schools,” including to some extent George Mason, he said. “So did blogging. If something is unfair, well, in part that is your big chance.”

That is from Scott Jaschik at Inside HigherEd, mostly about Jacob Vigdor and his critique of the economics profession.


Concentration (or centralization) of firms is supported by Cowen, just as antitrust enforcement is opposed by Cowen. Indeed, Mercatus and the economics department at GMU both reflect this preference. Cowen is being consistent in his view of concentration (centralization) of the top economics departments. But if Cowen is concerned about "pressures to conform" at those centralized departments, aren't the same "pressures to conform" present in concentrated firms? For example, when one scans the most successful tech firms, they are highly concentrated and they conform to a single model for generating revenues. Indeed, they even seem to conform when it comes to the development of new technology. Whatever the quality of scholarship at Harvard and MIT, they don't have a monopoly on economics or economic ideas or top quality scholars, as departments at other elite schools (e.g., Chicago) are highly competitive while departments at some heterodox schools by definition don't conform. Of course, Cowen's comments about the departments at Harvard and MIT could apply to the bifurcation of colleges and universities between the elites and all the rest, admission to the former a condition to admission to the best jobs and the best prospects for success. Indeed, one can observe how the "pressures for conformity" have resulted in fewer technological advancements that support productivity growth as firms follow the same path.

It seems to be that the current movement towards socialism and away from free markets is clear proof of how ineffective and incompetent professional economists are. The idea that further centralization will improve the situation is risible.

Yes. The profession seems to be tilting toward the left. The main product of the profession seems to be busy work and statistical studies that don’t add up to anything.

Using 'professional economists' as a collective noun is odd in this context. It implies pervasive GroupThink which is clean contrary to an academic pursuit.

I thought Thomas Kuhn had nailed that one decades ago.

The profession isn't tilting to the 'left' it's establishing new norms, which will in their turn by challenged as and when they cease to offer useful insights.

I read Kuhn's book in a philosophy of science class, probably around 1970. I bought it a couple of years ago and reread it on my Kindle. I did a quick search for "economics" and it occurred in one passage. I don't think Kuhn was much focussed on economics and social science, beyond the question of whether these could be called science.

The trouble with modern economics is that its "conclusions" are not really firm enough to distinguish what is true. So what is left is largely fashion and political advocacy. I think Arnold Kling's "Memoirs of a Would-be Macroeconomist" is a good history of such delusion. As they say, you could look it up.

There's more truth in Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson than in most of the output of professional economists.

unfortunately for you, you're completely wrong, but I appreciate that you embrace the delusion that allows you to think you know just as much as those mean old experts.

Funny that left leaning institutions come out on top of the academic free market by outcompeting right leaning ones on ideas. Wonder what happened to U Chicago and all the other freshwater schools?

Moving from a market of monopolies perhaps does move towards a free market.

What are some "non-top" schools besides George Mason? Where are the interesting ideas? Bard has produced some great scholarship, particularly work by Minsky and Wray.

What are other contenders? Chicago is over, and not really producing anything different than Harvard/MIT these days. Columbia, Yale, NYU, Stanford and other also rans seem more like a place to park your career after having done something noteworthy. Princeton is the only "elite" school that seems to be producing interested in ideas outside of the mainstream, but it's often weird blockchainy things that are fizzling out.

My list might include (alphabetical order):
George Mason

Marxism is warmed over at this point and barely even qualifies as heterodox. Nothing on the right is inspiring, except perhaps this blog, which is more neoliberal than right. Obviously, I've left a gaping hole outside of the U.S., but where to start? National University of Singapore? HSE Russia? University of Copenhagen? I'm at a loss here. Oxbridge is second tier orthodoxy. Are Chinese universities capable of original research or is the political climate too stifling?

Any help here would be enlightening.

Not alphabetical order, haha. Oops

Cambridge (Harvard, MIT, NBER) plus the good Boston schools seemed to me an efficient place to exchange ideas. At UVa we could fly into the Summer Institutes for a week or two and fight with the likes of Krugman and Blanchard to sharpen our ideas - and theirs.

What might our elites make of the spontaneous outbreak of the Netflix-inspired "Bird Brain Challenge" of groping through life blindfolded?

How much longer can Americans rely on corrupt and corrupting Media Establishment pabulum to trigger or promote critical thought? --or, not caring to promote critical thought at large across America, what explains the "cognitive abdication" of our puny elites these days?

What ARE our cognitive oligarchs thinking?

How did Chicago screw up? When I was an undergrad there during the George W. Bush years they were still incredibly proud of the economics department.

I have clearly not been keeping up; when and in what ways did Chicago slip from being a Top 3 to being an also-ran? The comments here seem to agree with Tyler that it's a two-horse race now, not a three-way race.

What makes the comments here authoritative?

Chicago is still doing lots of interesting things. I don't know that there's a consensus that it is not.

Wall Street has some pretty good economist traders and they seem to predict better than most academic economists.

So what has this top talented produced this century? What are the Top 10 innovations in economics since 2000?

Other than Gorton's 'Slapped' paper of 2009, I can't recall having read an economics piece which fundamentally altered my world view.

University of Missouri Kansas City - Stephanie Kelton (now at Stony Brook)
Bard - Randall Wray
University of Western Sydney - Steve Keen

What is so wrong about elitism ?

What, you don't think Larry Kudlow is the best of the best?

I had heard complaints that many top US students don't want to enter Ph.D. programs. They can make much more money elsewhere. So many graduate programs became dependant on foreign students. The foreign students often seem to have more trouble finding research that resonates with the academic market. Perhaps superior skill at quantitative analysis is unable to overcome the drift toward the marriage of Economics and Psychology in many programs. What is the degree of cultural bias in the top Economics departments?

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