In recent years, much has been written about how the economics profession is drifting to the left. For example, Noah Smith writes:
“…almost all of the most prominent economists in the public sphere -- Paul Krugman, Summers, Thomas Piketty, and the rest -- lean to the left, and lean significantly more to the left than in years past. Conservative economists are largely hiding out in academia…”
But like Noah, I am skeptical that this represents a permanent change. It’s important to recognize that which economists are given a voice in the public sphere depends upon the questions that society is trying to answer, and that is driven to a large extent by the political environment.
With new questions coming to prominence with the new administration, research on economic policy will follow the political winds. The economists in the public eye will change as well (“conservative economist" Ben Stein appears on CNN as I write this). That will alter the public’s perception of which ideas are dominant within the profession.
Is this a sign that economics is corrupted by political influence and the desire to support ideological positions rather than pursuing the “truth”?
I don’t think so. Even in the hard sciences research is influenced by the issues society is confronting and by the issues researchers care about the most. The questions scientists confront are not necessarily “value free.” This in itself is not problematic. We want researchers to try and provide answers to important questions. What’s essential is that once a question is posed, the search for an answer is an unbiased and open search for the truth.
In economics, it is certainly the case that some economists tend to do research on questions important to Democrats, and others are more likely to address issues important to Republicans (and there are those in academia – more than you might think – who cross political lines frequently as the questions change). When this is combined with the publication bias in economics journals that favors novel, significant results, the outcome is that some economists appear to do little but produce research that supports Democratic policies, while others produce research that mostly supports Republicans. The profession looks politicized.
There is nothing wrong with a healthy debate over macroeconomic policy, but those debates need to be conducted honestly. I don’t mean everyone should come to the same conclusion after reviewing the empirical evidence from “Republican” and “Democratic” economists on a particular issue. Opinions will differ on the validity of assumptions underlying results and the strength of the evidence, results are often mixed, and so on (and confirmation bias – the tendency to find ways to support existing ideas – can also influence how evidence is interpreted).
Also, beliefs about the importance of empirical evidence are not always value free. Suppose, for example, that research shows that tax cuts for the wealthy increase income inequality. The significance of this finding and the propensity to try and answer the question in the first place will depend upon one’s view of the importance of inequality as a social problem.
It’s important for each side to expose the strengths and weaknesses of the existing empirical evidence as they debate these issues among themselves and in public. That helps to point the way forward. The problem comes when results are presented dishonestly to the public, or when results are manipulated to produce the desired outcome. For example, assuming tax cuts for the wealthy will produce a growth miracle as a way of gaining public support for the policy. Behavior like this is my problem with many economists, especially those outside of academia, e.g. in conservative think tanks like the Tax Foundation and the Heritage Foundation (though academics are not immune).
I wish I could blame the mainstream media for not knowing when they are being bamboozled, and there is certainly room for improvement, particularly when it comes to “bothsidism” reporting. But I’m not sure how much difference it would make given the deep partisan splits that currently exist, and the existence of partisan news sources willing to say anything, true or not, to support an ideological agenda.
Conservatives might win on issues such as the privatization of Medicare, the wall, and taxation, and they might not. What I hope is that academic economists, particularly those on the right who will be in the public eye and stand a chance of being heard over the next four years, will step up and call out dishonest arguments much more than they have in the past. It is not okay to stand by passively when “good lies” are told, arguments known to be false or misleading, but support policies one believes in. Even if the ends did justify the means in the short-run, the long run damage to the profession that could be done – that has already been done – needs to be taken into account.