Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More on Notre Dame economics

orgtheory.net offers up some thoughts on the Notre Dame economics department, that I think miss several boats.

First, ND is not short on money. They have already invested a huge amount of money in the new neoclassical economics department and have seen a real payoff from that money in terms of the quality of the people being hired. They now have quite nice groups in both labor and macro.

Second, ND's real problem in raising the quality of the department is not money, it is getting people to come to South Bend. It is not a major urban area (though it is a relatively easy train ride from Chicago) which means not so many urban amenities and a tough time solving joint match problems. They share this difficulty with every other university not located in a big city.

Third, ND is not trying to please other economists by maximizing prestige. It is trying to please students, parents and donors by offering a course of study the leads to jobs and good graduate programs in business and other fields.

I am not unsympathetic to the idea of building strength in areas presently somewhat out of fashion. Arizona did this when it built up in experimental economics before that subfield became hot. I have argued for doing the same here at Michigan in economic history. But heterodox economics is not just out of fashion; most of it is just plain awful. Moreover, students can often obtain much of the intellectual value (e.g. thoughtful critiques of neo-classical economics) they would get from learning non-awful heterodox economics by attending courses in other disciplines.

Addendum: An anonymous reader provides the "Chicago" translation of my remarks:
the post you blogged about was the stupidest post imaginable. You have a discipline like economics where you can train kids to go out and earn a very good living. It gets captured by a bunch of unproductive, shallow Marxists so the Dean at ND is supposed to roll over let them to continue to not train their students? Why? Because in 30 years someone might cite their work. Hmmm."

1 comment:

fabiorojas said...

Hi, Jeff:

Thanks for linking to my post. I think you omitted one key element of my post at orgtheory. In the body of the post, I specifically said:

"Let’s put aside issues of intellectual merit and focus on academic strategy. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that the only difference between neo-classical and heterodox economics is simply popularity. Is it good academic strategy to shut down heterodox economics?"

The purpose of the post was not to make a judgment about the quality of heterodox economics. The purpose was to ask whether long term impact in unorthodox fields is a worthwhile goal in comparison to being second best in the mainstream. Plausible cases can be made either way.

The specifics of Notre Dame and economics are beside the point. South Bend's small town flavor is not the point, nor is ND's budget. The broader point is whether acceptance in the mainstream of today should be the primary way of judging a scholar or department.

Sure, it would be great if ND could suddenly vault to the top of its field. Programs will sometimes jump to the top. It happens. However, the more typical outcome is that a program will improve a bit and become one of the pack. Academia is like a European cycling race. There are a few clearly outstanding stars, and then a huge pack of competent second bests.

I'd also like to address "Chicago" reader. In the College of Arts and Sciences, or its equivalent at ND, job training is not the main goal. Contribution to knowledge is the goal. The Dean is free to say "Marxism is bunk" (my view, actually). That's a legitimate response.

However, if he thinks Marxism, or whatever heterodoxy, is a legitimate counter point to the mainstream, then he should have the bravery to say: "Look, academia is about debating and assessing different views. The mainstream is wrong in this case and down the road, it will have significant impact." That's also a legitimate response. And if the future MBA's of America get an extra course in feminist-post-modern-neo-classical-poetry, then so be it!