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December 20, 2004

Jon Chait on the Political Composition of Academia

At least among economists, I can assure everyone that Jon Chait is right. Ever since the days in the late 1970s that Irving Kristol decided that pushing supply-side economics was a way to keep the balanced-budget Republicans from fighting with the tax-cut Republicans, it has been agony to be both a serious economist and a line-toeing Republican. Hence the small numbers of Republicans in what is a very market-loving and intervention-skeptical discipline:

A few weeks ago, a pair of studies found that Democrats vastly outnumbered Republicans among professors at leading universities. Conservatives gleefully seized upon this to once again flagellate academia for its liberal bias. Am I the only person who fails to understand why conservatives see this finding as vindication? After all, these studies show that some of the best-educated, most-informed people in the country overwhelmingly reject the GOP. Why is this seen as an indictment of academia, rather than as an indictment of the Republican Party?

Conservatives have a ready answer. The only reason faculties lean so far to the left is that deans, administrators and entire university cultures systematically discriminate against conservatives. They don't, however, have much evidence to back this up. Mostly, they assume that the leftward tilt is prima facie evidence of anti-conservative discrimination. (Yet, when liberals hold up minority underrepresentation at some institutions as proof of discrimination, conservatives are justifiably skeptical.)...

But the rise of fashionable left-wing scholarship can be blamed for only a tiny part of the GOP's problem. The studies showing that academics prefer Democrats to Republicans also show that this preference holds in hard sciences as well as social sciences. Are we to believe that higher education has fallen prey to trendy multiculturalist engineering, or that physics departments everywhere suppress conservative quantum theorists?

The main causes of the partisan disparity on campus have little to do with anything so nefarious as discrimination. First, Republicans don't particularly want to be professors. To go into academia — a highly competitive field that does not offer great riches — you have to believe that living the life of the mind is more valuable than making a Wall Street salary. On most issues that offer a choice between having more money in your pocket and having something else — a cleaner environment, universal health insurance, etc. — conservatives tend to prefer the money and liberals tend to prefer the something else. It's not so surprising that the same thinking would extend to career choices.

Second, professors don't particularly want to be Republicans. In recent years, and especially under George W. Bush, Republicans have cultivated anti-intellectualism. Remember how Bush in 2000 ridiculed Al Gore for using all them big numbers?

That's not just a campaign ploy. It's how Republicans govern these days. Last summer, my colleague Frank Foer wrote a cover story in the New Republic detailing the way the Bush administration had disdained the advice of experts. And not liberal experts, either. These were Republican-appointed wonks whose know-how on topics such as global warming, the national debt and occupying Iraq were systematically ignored. Bush prefers to follow his gut.

In the world of academia, that's about the nastiest thing you can say about somebody. Bush's supporters consider it a compliment. "Republicans, from Reagan to Bush, admire leaders who are straight-talking men of faith. The Republican leader doesn't have to be book smart," wrote conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks a week before the election. "Democrats, on the other hand, are more apt to emphasize … being knowledgeable and thoughtful. They value leaders who see complexities, who possess the virtues of the well-educated."

It so happens that, in other columns, Brooks has blamed the dearth of conservative professors on ideological discrimination. In fact, the GOP is just being rejected by those who not only prefer their leaders to think complexly but are complex thinkers themselves. There's a problem with this picture, all right, but it doesn't lie with academia.

Posted by DeLong at December 20, 2004 12:21 PM

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The problem, as I see it, devolves significantly from the fact that the argument 'Democrats do in fact have better solutions to average concerns' is delivered from an ivory tower, as opposed to from the grass roots....but I think that 'over-intellect... [Read More]

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Comments

I'll wager econ departments are farther to the right than hard science departments.

Posted by: liberal at December 20, 2004 12:29 PM


The motivator for science is doubt except in the face of overwhelming evidence. The motivator for religion is faith even in the face of overwhelming counterevidence. There is no surprise that the party of the religious right is underrepresented in the halls of science.

Posted by: ogmb at December 20, 2004 12:30 PM


Brad, why aren't you discussing Bush's plan to slash spending and the deficit?

Posted by: jojo at December 20, 2004 12:42 PM


For me, the Bush's comment below says it all.

IF BERNANKE SUCCEEDS departing Mankiw as chair of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, he could boost his chance of succeeding Greenspan in 2006. Other potential Fed Chairs are Harvard's Feldstein and Columbia's Hubbard. At economic conference, Bush notes Treasury Secretary Snow's Ph.D. and cracks, "in spite of that, I'm confident we can get a lot done."

From the December 17th edition of the Wall Street Journal, page A4 in the Washington Wire column.

[Yeah. It does tell Greg and Ben (and John Snow, and Glenn Hubbard) what Bush thinks of them...]

Posted by: Linda at December 20, 2004 12:45 PM


jojo - Which one? The "I will be disciplined" declaration that mimics those of the past four years, or the "let's borrow trillions but make it off-budget and never plan to pay it back" plan?

Is there a link for the Chait? I assume LATimes, but haven't looked yet.

Posted by: Ken Houghton at December 20, 2004 12:46 PM


http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&lr=&q=%22integrative+complexity%22+political

He's missing one very large piece of the puzzle - the differences in cognitive style between liberal and conservative. Moderate liberals tend to express the most integratively complex reasoning, which is also what we would expect from academics, especially from successful ones.

Posted by: Alec Jones at December 20, 2004 12:52 PM


Hmmm... Are economists more right-wing than natural scientists... We're certainly *not* more right-wing than nuclear physicists... I'll have to think about this...

Posted by: Brad DeLong at December 20, 2004 12:59 PM


"Moderate liberals tend to express the most integratively complex reasoning."

Do you know any conservatives? All the conservatives I know fit nicely into that categorization.

[Clearly you need to get out more.]

Posted by: David Andersen at December 20, 2004 01:03 PM


"The motivator for religion is faith even in the face of overwhelming counterevidence."

1. No, it's not.

2. There is a non-trivial difference between counterevidence (of which there is none) and a lack of evidence either way (which - I think - more accurately describes the case for or against God).

[But there is plenty of evidence against a benevolent God who creates the best of all possible worlds...]

Posted by: David Andersen at December 20, 2004 01:06 PM


2. There is a non-trivial difference between counterevidence (of which there is none) and a lack of evidence either way (which - I think - more accurately describes the case for or against God). =========

There's a non-trivial difference between Religion and the question of whether God exists.

Posted by: ogmb at December 20, 2004 01:55 PM


I'm a physics professor, and believe me there is no ideological selection in our hiring. We have all types, ranging from Marxists to Libertarians (we are much more diverse politically than social science or humaniities).

Nevertheless, the majority of physics professors are probably centrist or liberal democrats.

I think even at the weapons labs, like Livermore or Los Alamos, you will find at least slightly more scientists on the left than the right.

Posted by: steve at December 20, 2004 02:15 PM


How skeptical of intervention is the discipline?

Posted by: Brian at December 20, 2004 02:36 PM


Very. You have to show a market failure first. The default presumption is that the market will offer the most efficient allocation of resources. You have to fashion a government intervention that works and will not have long-term unintended consequences.

Almost all basic economic texts are against tariffs and quotas. Most suggest that any sort of price control result in undesireable shortages (rent control used as an example) or surplusses (minimum wage or agricultural price supports often used ). A good number will even defend monopolies either as better than interference or not too big a concern because of long-term forces. I have never seen a basic economic text talk about offering a minimum standard of living to everyone as a goal. Wealth distribution is not covered very thoroughly and even if the facts of huge inequality is mentioned, no judgement as to the potential negative consequences of those kind of disparities is offered. Supply side economics is treated as equal to other fiscal policies without any hint that there might be some difference of opinion as to the effectiveness of supply side policies. I'm sure I could go on. Although these positions may not be what every academic economist thinks, they are non-controversial enough that they're willing to teach econ 101 from these texts.

Posted by: elliottg at December 20, 2004 03:21 PM


How do the republicans feel about the fact that virtually all members of white-supremacy groups are republicans.....must be the bias in hiring.....

democrats need better representation amongst ignoramuses.

Posted by: who at December 20, 2004 03:25 PM


The discrimination in the humanities is clear to anyone, the "march through the institutions" is not just a paranoid fantasy of the conservative imagination. An extreme example, much of the output of education faculties has traditionally been lunar-left thinking.

And how else could an unrepentant left-wing terrorist end up as a law professor (Bernadine Dohrn)?

Anyway, news that universities lean to the left is about as surprising as news that armed forces lean to the right.

Posted by: Adam at December 20, 2004 03:27 PM


That was very good. May he now take the same axe to the "liberal media bias", the one that publicly-traded corporations impose upon a pubic with access to 100,000 different opinions.

Posted by: Gerard MacDonell at December 20, 2004 03:31 PM


among the national labs folks i know.....many of them are socially liberal, fiscal conservatives...who also support a strong defense for obvious reasons. this spin through though, none that i personally know supported bush. of course my sampling isn't spectacular, but the attitudes these guys expressed was rather depressing.

Posted by: who at December 20, 2004 03:31 PM


of course, social sciences and humanities lean left.

in any field that relies on subjective interpretation, biases will be inherent for each cooperative group.

what's telling is the fact that academics that work in the *empirical* fields are overwhelmingly "liberal" by modern gop standards.

Posted by: who at December 20, 2004 03:35 PM


"Moderate liberals tend to express the most integratively complex reasoning"

URL please, or some other pointer to the data.

Posted by: Anna at December 20, 2004 03:59 PM


I was about to chime in with "I'm a Berkeley math professor, and have neither found any math professors anywhere who admitted voting for Bush, nor seen this be relevant in hiring and promotion" but thought about the geographic bias. Of the math departments I regularly visit, probably the only one not in a Blue state is the University of Texas... at Austin.

[pretend there's a paragraph break here, uneaten by MT]
I've heard that among rank-and-file journalists, there is indeed a preponderance of liberals. (This is not to agree with the liberal-media meme, given the unfortunate influence of the rich people upstairs on what gets reported.) This I took as a related condemnation of the planks of the Republican party to the one Brad DeLong describes -- if the people whose job it is to watch Washington up close have come to this opinion, shouldn't it be given more credit and not less?

Posted by: Allen Knutson at December 20, 2004 04:20 PM


That's why dingbat righty's like mr Front Page Mag and failed academics like Mike Savage find refuge in the lunatic righty fringe-because in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king.
Further, the definition of what is left is now so far to the right that Goldwater would be a leftist pussy and Reagan a pinko. Face the fact that the right wing is too busy getting ready to dress up in brown shirts and sam browne belts to take the time to pursue a poorly paid, much abused, and under rewarded pursuit like academe. For most overprivileged cretins it is no different than a long driver's test, a license to go out and make big bucks selling air and crap to each other, and gripe about those saps at university who actually gave a damn about anything beyond the profit motive.

Posted by: bigfoot at December 20, 2004 04:26 PM


"Supply side economics is treated as equal to other fiscal policies without any hint that there might be some difference of opinion as to the effectiveness of supply side policies."

i don't think this is true at all. The textbooks i have seen usually treat supply-side as an afterthought, and indicate it doesn't have much evidence in favour of it.

Posted by: Robert at December 20, 2004 05:22 PM


Von Hayek saw the pattern years ago: "All my conservative students become bankers; all my radical students become professors." What else would you expect? Selective gratification.

Posted by: g-lex at December 20, 2004 05:43 PM


Academics pursue truth. Republicans disdain it.

Posted by: The Fool at December 20, 2004 05:51 PM


We try to stretch our imagination to contemplate hordes of Republicans begging for the opportunity to teach post-pubescent youths, grade their papers, and explain to them why adequate work gets a "C," no matter how hard you try, for a modest wage and the opportunity to do committee work. We would embrace affirmative action programs for any Republicans or conservatives who could honestly embrace the work and would take our place on the curriculum revision committee.

Posted by: Pudentilla at December 20, 2004 06:17 PM


“I think even at the weapons labs, like Livermore or Los Alamos, you will find at least slightly more scientists on the left than the right.”

Not true. While there are plenty of liberals at both places, I’m afraid you will find more Republicans than Democrats. Both these places are nuclear weapons labs. Edward Teller founded the Lawrence Radiation Lab (later renamed Lawrence Livermore). Livermore was the progenitor of the dreaded (to Russians and liberals) and malevolent Strategic Defense Initiative. You will find strong support for global warming however, because that’s what gets you funding.

Posted by: A. Zarkov at December 20, 2004 06:48 PM


"...dreaded (to Russians and liberals) and malevolent Strategic Defense Initiative. "

Since when did the Russians dread it?

Posted by: Barry at December 20, 2004 07:32 PM


“Since when did the Russians dread it?”

They said they dreaded it. They were willing to make important concessions to stop it. They had their own missile defense system around Moscow, and they built large phased array radar near Krasnoyarsk in violation of the 1972 ABM treaty. This radar was to be part of a nation wide missile defense system and thus in violation of the ABM treaty. The Russians believed in missile defense, and that’s why they dreaded SDI. You can argue that these systems are too vulnerable to penetration aids to work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Russians didn’t dread it. Who said they had to be rational?

Posted by: A. Zarkov at December 20, 2004 08:04 PM


The academic life is the life of reason, which is inimical to much of conservatism, which values tradition more than reason. We once had a conservative apply for a criminal justice position at our small Texas school. His resume was filled with all of his speeches and articles promoting creationism--he practically screamed it. He had graduated from an unaccredited Bible college, had no academic record in criminal justice, and no scientific background for his creationism work. Was it any wonder we rejected him?

Posted by: pollysi at December 20, 2004 08:13 PM


The party of people who believe that dinosaur bones are remnants of demons who died in the flood is underrepresented in academia? Imagine that.

Posted by: rps at December 20, 2004 09:09 PM


"Not true. While there are plenty of liberals at both places, I’m afraid you will find more Republicans than Democrats. Both these places are nuclear weapons labs."

In my experience, the historical nature of Livermore being Edward Teller's sandbox doesn't completely overweigh that Livermore is part of the SF Bay Area and has close links with Berkeley (and its employees are UC employees). It's probably close to 50-50. But if that's the best the Republicans (50% of a quasio-academic weapons lab), it doesn't look good.

Posted by: Urinated State of America at December 21, 2004 10:43 AM


There's another piece to this issue besides evidence+logic vs. faith+tradition, I think: the spirit of progress inherent in academic research.

Academics conduct research with the belief that society can be continuously improved by discovering new knowledge, creating new ways
of thinking, and enhancing our understanding of the world. Progress is not only possible and desirable in the world of academic research: it is the top priority. It is the profession's reason for being.

Conservatism, by contrast, places priority on preserving the virtue of the status quo and opposing radical change.

Thus there's a conflict between conservatism and the academic impulse to discover, delve, create, invent, etc.

Posted by: Benjamin Rahn at December 21, 2004 01:56 PM


elliottg,

I'm curious, are you an economist? Trying not to give too much about my status away, let me say that I know some economists. I also try to keep up and follow on all of the related information. What I can say is - and I've had others agree with me here - is that economists seem to agree on only two thing: the fact that communism doesn't work and that free trade is a good thing. Other than that, there seems to be an enormous amount of back and forth. Take the minimum wage. Everyone knows that it does have some negative effect on some areas of the labor market, but some feel that if the economy is adding jobs overall, it doesn't matter, while others feel that any job loss is a bad thing.

Can an actual academic, if you are not one, chime in here? I mean, everyone respects the idea of free markets, as I indicated above, but it's not an either or situation.

Posted by: Brian at December 21, 2004 09:27 PM


A. Zarkov wrote, "The Russians believed in missile defense, and that’s why they dreaded SDI. You can argue that these systems are too vulnerable to penetration aids to work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Russians didn’t dread it. Who said they had to be rational?"

True. Given that many credulous people in the US believe in this kooky stuff, and given the universal aspect of human stupidity, there's no reason to think that many Soviets didn't dread it.

Posted by: liberal at December 22, 2004 04:49 AM


Brian wrote, "Take the minimum wage. Everyone knows that it does have some negative effect on some areas of the labor market..."

But note the work of Krueger and Card (?) showing that in some situations the effect is tiny or not measurable. (IIRC)

Posted by: liberal at December 22, 2004 04:57 AM