Two Random Items

Now that I’ve learned that there are some RBC readers who do not love economists (I am married to one), I thought I would offer two funny items to lighten the mood.    Here is an article highlighting the thoughts of Jonathan Haidt .  We ran track together at Scarsdale High School in the early 1980s.  Few Scarsdale grads chose to become professors. Instead, they became lawyers or went to Wall Street.  Jonathan argues that conservatives are under-represented in his field.  Why?    The second item I want to share is Kittey Kelley’s biography of Oprah Winfrey.   I read it on the plane ride the other day and found it to be fascinating.  I like ambition, gossip and success.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

19 thoughts on “Two Random Items”

  1. Matthew, do you think liberals are equally represented among economists? If you find the RBC reception so chilly, it seems to me you’ve been living in a bubble of your own. (Though I also do not think it is likely you are Darth Vader.)

    As for Larry Summers, he either shouldn’t have said it, or he shouldn’t have apologized.

    This is your idea of lightening a mood?

  2. On second thought, we probably should be nicer to you, you just started here.
    I try not to post during the day or I would have said so before.
    Don’t get scared off!

  3. My only question about economists’ posts is the same one I had about all the religion posts — what are they doing at a blog titled “Reality-Based Community.” Economists are nothing but the priests who chant the virtues of the powers that pay them — whether they be commie economists in the old USSR or capitalist economists in the plutosphere.

    As a “science,” economics is like pre-Harvey medicine, far more likely to kill the patient than any disease or injury acquired otherwise.

    There are about five economists in the world worth reading; most of them spend most of their time pointing out how little this pseudo-science is able to say about most things that isn’t trivially obvious to any thoughtful observer with zero economic training.

    But I did like your attempt to shill for capitalism as the cure for the climate disruption that the blinkered idiocy of economists has ensured for us all.

  4. Dr. Haidt is wrong about the social history. The Liberal Consensus was a phenomenon of the late 1940s and 1950s, and it was a product of two world wars, a great depression and sixty years of Jim Crow — all the (perceived) outcomes of conservative politics and policies. William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951, after his 1946-50 sojurn there as an undergraduate. I think he imagines that that phenomenon originated later, because of what he takes to be the iconic taboo of the liberal tribe among academics — racial discrimination. Race came to define the partisan, political divisions of the country, beginning in the late 1960s, when Richard Nixon adopted his so-called “Southern Strategy” and the two Political Parties began their slow evolution toward a division almost purely along lines of personal worldview and attitudes. It was only in the 1980s that conservative Democrat and liberal Republican became endangered species, and only in the last decade that those phrases became contradictions in terms.

    Professor Haidt is passably clever as a rhetorician, in framing his case. There’s almost nothing a liberal could say in opposition, which he could not dismiss as the product of being bound by tribal taboos. (Naturally, he identifies himself as a centrist.) And, he’s proposed a remedy — affirmative action for conservatives — within the accepted frame of the tribe. He’s even suggested a new taboo on political comments favorable to a liberal point-of-view; these are to be treated like racist or off-color jokes.

    I doubt that the principles of partisan or ideological division are stable enough, that his goal of 10% conservatives by 2020 could be verified. What is “liberal” or “centrist” or “conservative” is a moving target. In many ways, the partisan homogeneity of social psychology, and other academic disciplines as well, is a transient and accidental product of the way the two parties have been evolving, a process largely exogenous to the discipline.

  5. I agree with Bruce’s social history, but Haidt has a point. Academic discourse has its taboos and mandatory happy-talk, much like corporate discourse. I’d say that corporate discourse is a bit more regulated, but the regulation is also a bit more rational than academic regulation, given the respective goals of the organizations.

    (btw, Summers wasn’t fired because of his remarks about women. It might have been the trigger, but it was on top of a long history of pissing off his faculty, on mundane things like campus expansion and undergraduate education.)

  6. That’s some odd business from Haidt. American conservatism is characterized by views that – whether they are true or not – are incompatible with science and Enlightenment epistemology. Of course conservatives are discriminated against in the academy.

    On the other hand, the exact sort of discrimination decried by Haidt takes place here. The name for this blog came from the (smug and false) view that Bush-type conservatives are less perceptive about reality the enlightened types like Dr. Kleiman. “Reality-based” people could learn a lot from Karl Rove, but there’s no value at all to having Michael Behe on your faculty.

  7. Though I also do not think it is likely you are Darth Vader.

    Please note that nobody compared Dr. Kahn to Darth Vader – that was purely his invention. In fact, the specific comparison was to (the apochryphal) Marie Antoinette. The complaint wasn’t about Evil; it’s about arguments made from a position of naive, unexamined privilege. That complaint has gone unrebutted.

  8. @ Politicalfootball:
    I worked with Mike Behe back at the NIH. He’s a very collegial fellow: a real mensch. (Or at least he was back then.) So there is some value in having him on your faculty. Scholarly value? Well, maybe not so much.

  9. Let’s add this: The idea that the president of Harvard University holds views that made it impossible for him to advance in academia is, on its face, absurd. The idea that there were no substantive, scientific objections to Summers’ statements is absurd. Tierney (and, as far as I can tell, Haidt) don’t even attempt to make the argument that Summers was correct. And Tierney, in explaining how academic research can’t properly examine issues of gender parity cites … academic research.

    It isn’t inherently absurd to think that academics should be concerned about occupying an intellectual bubble – in fact, I’m sure it’s a valid concern – but affirmative action for fuzzy argumentation isn’t the answer.

  10. Economics has a little bit of explanatory power. Less than a coin flip in many instances, but it still has the power to illuminate. The danger comes when one believes that it has more explanatory power than it does. This is a psychology problem, not an economics problem. Matt has good humor and does a nice job at explication and then tries to keep a good public attitude while grumpy commenters hurl brickbats. The RBC chose well within the context. Personally I’d prefer one of Herman Daly’s protegés to explain challenges to future adaptation to climate, but you takes what youze can gets.

  11. Krugman had some thoughts about that Haidt article today:

    Every once in a while you get stories like this one, about the underrepresentation of conservatives in academics, that treat ideological divides as being somehow equivalent to racial differences. This is a really, really bad analogy.

    And it’s not just the fact that you can choose your ideology, but not your race. Ideologies have a real effect on overall life outlook, which has a direct impact on job choices. Military officers are much more conservative than the population at large; so? (And funny how you don’t see opinion pieces screaming “bias” and demanding an effort to redress the imbalance.)

    It’s particularly troubling to apply some test of equal representation when you’re looking at academics who do research on the very subjects that define the political divide. Biologists, physicists, and chemists are all predominantly liberal; does this reflect discrimination, or the tendency of people who actually know science to reject a political tendency that denies climate change and is broadly hostile to the theory of evolution?

    Now, I don’t mean to say that political bias in the academy is absent, although it’s not consistent: I can well imagine that it’s hard to be a conservative in some social sciences, but in economics, the obvious bias in things like acceptance of papers at major journals is towards, not against, a doctrinaire free-market view. But the point is that doing head counts is a terrible way to assess that bias.

  12. @Ebenezer Scrooge

    I’ve found Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and Social Intuition model fascinating and insightful. In the linked piece, I think he is self-consciously doing an intervention, designed according to the precepts of his own theory, which suggests that all political super-groups are engaged in a semi-fluid, semi-chaotic dance driven by moral bullying — like wrestlers circling each other in a ring, but with more than two wrestlers, and no fixed teams of wrestlers. I suspect he knows that social pschology is in a relatively degenerate state relative to institutional structures put in place (he imagines in the 1970s, because he’s young and that’s the earliest he can sort of remember, or project back from what he really does remember from the Reagan Era).

    One of the most interesting parts, for me, was the choice of Fables. One of my favorite Star Trek (New Generation?) episodes was one where the writers dropped their usual presumption that the entire galaxy is populated by English-speaking humans (or that their computers can do simultaneous translation so transparent that you rarely hear anything more than an occasional alien language phrase placed for color). Anyway, the aliens’s language consisted of short-hand references to the stories drawn from their mythos; the Trekkies did not know the mythos, so, though, the computer dutifully translated the words into English per usual, our Heroes couldn’t really understand what the aliens meant by anything they said.

    Haidt structures his presentation around such mythic storytelling. As befits his theme, these are martyr stories, followed by vindication stories: Moynihan and black families, Larry Summers and political correctness, “coming out as a conservative”, and, finally, the absolutely foundational (for a conservative viewpoint) evolution and race, complete with a ritualized slander of Stephen J. Gould.

    It is human nature to want such fables, to instruct us in “what it all means” and to bind us to our tribe, as Haidt so brilliantly illuminates. Being about meaning, and not function (they have a social function, but the stories are not themselves about function, or an analysis of function), they are not “true” in any objective or scientific sense. In fact, each story, as is always true of myth, is more than a little bit of a lie. His “coming out” example was wholly fabricated! I wouldn’t want to make too much of the prevarications involved; I don’t think Haidt is a bad person or acting unethically — it’s the nature of the enterprise, which is an expression of the moral convictions and social identities that motivate subjective viewpoints. No one is, individually, “objective”. Our viewpoints, qua viewpoints, are inherently limiting, because we are, individually, limited. Scholars and scientists need to build a strong point of view to organize and motivate emotionally their work, but the work is organized around a social division of labor. “Objective” knowledge is a product of shared, social enterprise, which includes the open conflict of points of view: the college of science and all that. No one gets to elevate themselves above the fray simply by putting on a white lab coat and using a stilted and politically correct jargon. One guy sticks his hand in the water, and says, “cold” and another guy does the same, and says, “tepid” and, then, they argue, and eventually, someone invents temperature.

    If everyone is bullied into saying, “tepid”, temperature never gets invented, and the scientific purpose is defeated.


    I thought your comments were excellent.

    The gifts of the Enlightenment were to see that the world is functional, but not meaningful (aka “God is dead.”), and that the way to establish “truth” is critical method.

    Ebenezer Scrooge thinks academic regulation is less thorough (?) than corporate regulation; I don’t know how that comparison would be made, but academic regulation tends to be deep and can and does degenerate, destructively.

    To me, the great weakness of Haidt’s intervention as a serious critique, is that he doesn’t directly address and focus on methods and methodology. Instead, he looks at the memes floating around in the larger political context; (Read National Review?!?)

    One of the most powerful and famous results in Social Psychology are Milgram’s Authority experiments. Political correctness has been applied in the forum of human subject review committees in such a way that replication or extension of Milgram’s work would be next to impossible. Now, Milgram’s work is much more intriguing to anti-authoritarian liberals than to conservatives, so this problem of acceptable methodologies doesn’t fit neatly into Haidt’s overarching frame, although I’m sure he could analyze it to good effect, if he wanted to. But, it does affect what the discipline does.

    I’m much more familiar with economics, as an academic discipline, and economics is mired in degenerate, right-wing doctrines, not because most academic economists are conservatives (surveys indicate most identify as with the center and center-left), but because conservatives from Friedman to Lucas have fought and won the methodology wars. Consequently, we have an “orthodox” economic theory and “body of knowledge”, which is indefensible ignorance.

    Without focusing on the discipline’s choices and standards regarding critical method, I agree with political football, Haidt is basically arguing for affirmative action for fuzzy thinking.

  13. Re: Krugman

    I am definitely in the same, basic political camp as Krugman. That said, I think Krugman’s economics can be pretty thin soup, most of the time, precisely because he does not appreciate the extent to which he is just peddling fables. The whole “is current high unemployment cyclical or structural?” debate, which Krugman has taken a leading role in framing, is particularly sterile and uninformative.

    I think Haidt’s analysis of the moral psychology driving the politics might actually help Krugman break out of that sterile dichotomous frame, if he would take it more seriously.

  14. “The name for this blog came from the (smug and false) view that Bush-type conservatives are less perceptive about reality the enlightened types like Dr. Kleiman.”


    Here is the genesis of the term “reality-based community”: (the following lifted from Wikipedia)

    The source of the term is a quotation in an October 17, 2004, The New York Times Magazine article by writer Ron Suskind, quoting an unnamed aide to George W. Bush (later attributed to Karl Rove[1]):

    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”[2]

  15. Yes, doretta, that’s where the name for the blog came from, exactly as I said. If you believe some aspect of my comment is wrong, you need to identify that part.

  16. football, if you will not/cannot see the difference between

    the (smug and false) view that Bush-type conservatives are less perceptive about reality

    and the full context of the quote (purportedly from Rove)

    guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. ,

    then there’s really not much to say.

  17. Not very Reality-Based of you, Dan, but I think, like Rove, you make an important point: Judicious discussion of discernible reality is only useful for certain purposes. For other purposes, you’re wiser to make an assertion and, when that’s challenged, just repeat it, muddle it with an inane statement, and assert that there is no point in offering explanation or evidence.

    The ludicrous nature of your comment serves you well here – you leave me nothing to rebut. You assert that I see no difference between Rove’s views (as described by Suskind) and the views of the reality based community (as described by me), when my entire comment was a discussion of that difference. And you provide quotes to demonstrate that I understood that difference while asserting that I did not.

    Nicely done.

  18. As long as you assert it confidently and assiduously, you are covered is what I say. Also, I find it useful to recommend to folks: “whatever makes you feel good”.

    Nonetheless, trying to get back OT and speaking of assertions, Mr Kahn would be well-served, IMHO, to study post-Enlightenment biology and then ecology. It would help with the naive substitution assertions.

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