Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The balance of trade in academic economists 

This article on the training of European economists in the U.S. is vital reading for several reasons. Its author, Guy Sorman, argues that the U.S. is the only place to go.
�When one wants to become a real economist, to accumulate knowledge and recognition, one has no choice but the United States,� says Chicago�s Luigi Zingales, an Italian who is a leader in the hot field of financial regulation. ...

Many of the Europeans first came to the U.S. as graduate students, frustrated by the limited options offered by European universities. �I was initially trained at Brussels Free University,� says Zingales�s colleague Marianne Bertrand, who has been at the Booth School since 2000. �But when I decided to go for a Ph.D. in the 1990s��she earned hers from Harvard in 1998��the U.S. was the only sensible destination.� Getting a doctorate in her native Belgium was unappealing, she explains, because students were left on their own, with little academic support or oversight; many Ph.D. candidates she knew became discouraged after a few years and gave up. In the U.S., by contrast, the university was geared toward the student. Professors were approachable; research facilities, including libraries, were first-rate; and financial and other assistance was readily available.
I think this point is true; my own experience years ago was one where the faculty members knew me, inquired if I had what I needed to succeed (including enough money to live on!) and included me in their study. Joint papers with faculty and graduate students were not uncommon, and after interviewing hundreds of new PhDs during my time as chair (filling seven positions in the last eight years) I think that story is quite common. But there's more to it than just good customer service:
Nor did Europe offer much appeal once the doctorate was in hand. Zingales tried to return to Italy in 1984, after completing his degree at MIT, but the best job offer he could get was a mediocre research assistantship at a second-rate university. Twenty years later, he might have won tenure at the school, he says, but only if he had the right connections. Even the best Italian universities�and this was true of European schools in general�were dominated by autocratic and hierarchical traditions. Without belonging to the right academic network and having the right sponsors, career progress was difficult, if not impossible.

Obsolete and disproved Marxist and socialist thinking also remained strong within European universities, including in economics departments. Many young economists, scientifically oriented and so recognizing the superiority of free markets, found the climate intellectually stultifying. It remains the case that most French and Italian universities teach economics as a philosophical subject�with opinions mattering as much as facts�not a scientific subject. A Keynesian, statist perspective still dominates most European curricula: free-market professors are an embattled minority.

American economic departments were�and are�much more rigorous and nonpartisan by comparison. Yet isn�t there an ideological opposition between, say, the University of Chicago, known as a cradle of free-market theory, and Harvard, a supposedly liberal campus? �This perception hasn�t much to do with reality,� Bertrand responds. �We are scientists, above all; ideologies do not dictate our research or our teaching.� Alesina, a strong proponent of markets, agrees: �The notion of Harvard being liberal and Chicago free-market doesn�t coincide with academic reality.�
In almost any department you might find people who supported Republican candidates as well as Democratic candidates, and for the most part they are quite able to work together, even write together.

Sorman argues that some European schools are now making a comeback, including Toulouse, Bonn and Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Salaries that were once meager in Europe are now being boosted and research grants are getting larger too. But it is hard to wrest away leadership once it is established.

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