Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Economists unqualified to be university presidents 

Newmark's Door reports on a letter in today's Wall Street Journal discussing the Larry Summers folderol* (my attempt to shift the meme from kerfuffle.) The letter says that Summers problem is that he's an economist.
Musings that are considered "normal" among economists tend to be regarded as insensitive or even prejudiced in many other disciplines. At the root of his remarks is the fact that Mr. Summers's thinking is grounded in a discipline that has little sense of fairness and moral obligation, where discriminatory situations are often accepted as the result of Darwinian mechanisms that should be left untouched.
To which Craig replies,
Since when is concern for fairness and moral obligation part of science? Philosophy, sure. But the next time you want to understand the effect of taxes on work, deficits on GDP, or rent control on cities, talk to a philosopher. Check back and let us know what you learn.
No doubt the letter writer will not like Virginia Postrel's view on this.
People with an emotional stake and without the disciplinary habits of separating "is" from "ought" get pissed.
See also her thoughts on the use of marginalism and path dependence in economics. More of her thoughts here.

But to the letter writer's bigger point: How good are economists at being university presidents? John Siegfried considered this question about nine years ago in his presidential address to the Southern Economic Association, wherein he reported on interviewing about eighty presidents and provosts of colleges who were economists. (If you have access to JSTOR, you can read the talk here.) One of them was my undergraduate advisor, Brother Joachim Froelich, who was president of St. Anselm College and later Lorus College. Siegfried reports an older study that social scientists had twice the average rating of highly effective university presidents as other groups. Economists were found to be twice as likely to be administrators as one would infer from chance. (That may be because there are just too damned many of us.) He concludes:
Economists who are presidents and provosts of universities agree that a deep understanding of the basic principles of economics -- those taught in first-year courses -- is immensely helpful to them and distinguishes them from some (but certainly not all) of their colleagues whose careers were spawned in other academic disciplines. Ideas such as scarcity, marginal analysis, and sunk costs, as well as habits such as the incessant search for alternatives, and consideration of incentives and indirect effects, combine to give them an edge over their brethren trained elsewhere in academe, if only in reducing the time required for them to understand these indispensable principles.
No evidence was provided on the learning curve of social ecologists.

UPDATE: Those quoting Alchian & Allen find favor among the Scholars. I should also note that the Siegfried article is in Southern Economic Journal (1997), and should be on several journal archive services; JSTOR is just an old habit of mine.

*Though I'm contemplating 'codswallop', too.