PC economics

Robert Kuttner

April 10, 1991|By Robert Kuttner

IDEOLOGICAL conformism on campus has come under wide attack as the last, pathetic gasp of the 1960s. Supposedly, students and teachers, especially in the humanities, are under pressure from leftover radicals to be "politically correct," both socially and in the classroom.

This is, of course, deplorable. However, if you want to see truly rigid political correctness, take a good look at the field I cover -- economics.

To be credentialed to practice economicsm today, one must accept a certain body of theology -- a particular way of looking at human motivation and human society. Formal economics begins with the tautological premise that the process of buying and selling things -- supply and demand -- leads to optimal outcomes. It presumes that efforts to interfere with this natural order of things, notably by governments, are damaging to economic efficiency, and hence bad.

The standard economic model of human behavior presumes that selfishness is normal, and hence desirable, while altruism is suspect. It tends to study economic phenomena by collecting statistics and building mathematical models, rather than getting out of the office -- as Adam Smith did -- and seeing how things actually work.

By comparison, other academic disciplines are rich with healthy contention, in ideology, assumption and method. Nor did economists always view the world in this fashion.

There was a time when many economists were extremely curious about corporations, and unions, and communities and the development of technologies -- as dynamic and necessarily social phenomena. There was a time when economists understood that political power is inextricably linked to economic questions.

Once, most of the greatest economists studied history and society as well as mathematics, and recognized that the simple interplay of supply and demand through unregulated private transactions did not always lead to the best possible outcomes, either for citizens or nations.

There are, of course, still people who study the world in this manner. But they are unlikely to be tenured in the country's more prestigious departments of economics.

In fairness, there are a few exceptions to this conformism. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's highly regarded economics department, for example, is more tolerant of diversity than most, as is Notre Dame's. A number of public universities still offer sanctuary to dissenters.

However for the most part, to be a tenured economist at an elite university one must be "economically correct." This also describes most economists at Washington's influential think tanks, whether nominally Democrat or Republican.

While conservative publications have had a field day attacking supposed liberals for their politically correct illiberalism, there has not been a peep from the belatedly civil libertarian right wing about economic correctness. And while pressure for political correctness (PC), say, in literature classes may turn the heads of a few innocent sophomores, it is economic correctness (EC) that has the greater worldly influence and hence does the real damage.

Unlike the national tempest over PC in academe, the largely unreported scandal of EC narrows the scope of debate over our national economic well-being. It means that anyone who challenges the wisdom of, say, economic deregulation, or the systematic vilification of the public sector, or the U.S. government's backward priorities in its trade policy, or the perversity of our income distribution, is likely to be someone other than a tenured economist from a famous university.

That, in turn, means that most of the prestigious "experts" who testify before Congress on these pressing public questions are likely to be on the orthodox side. What could be more stifling of genuine free inquiry?

For example, when Congress considers whether Japanese protectionism might be contributing to erosion of U.S. competitiveness, the overwhelming consensus of the economics fraternity is that the bigger problem is the U.S. budget deficit. To suggest that Japan's industrial policies might have helped that nation is, almost by definition, to be a non-economist.

To argue that the United States should target key technologies or industries for development is to be considered an economic illiterate -- though this is standard policy in much of the world.

The rare economist, like Northwestern's Robert Eisner, who contends that the perils of the U.S. budget deficit are exaggerated, or Harvard's John Kenneth Galbraith, who doesn't think planning is a dirty word, or Berkeley's Laura Tyson, who favors a degree of managed trade, have been all but ostracized from the economic fraternity. With a handful of younger exceptions like Tyson, most economists with heterodox views are graybeards who were tenured long ago, before EC took over.

The economics profession, mind you, doesn't censor heretics. It just makes sure those with incorrect views seldom get union cards to begin with. One awaits the appropriate indignant editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

Robert Kuttner writes regularly on economic matters.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.