Monday, April 04, 2011

What would you identify as the central insights of Academic Choice theory?
The theory begins by identifying three principal ways in which economists try to maximize their utility. First, they receive salaries from universities, which can be increased if their course enrollment increases. Course enrollment is primarily driven by students with future careers in business and the financial sector, so an economist has an incentive to propound theories that CEOs and financial institutions find attractive. Even if adoption of these theories leads to substantial public costs, these costs will not be shouldered by the economist personally. Second, by developing such theories an economist can open the door to future wealth as a lobbyist or consultant. Third, the support of economists is critical to creating and maintaining special privileges for the financial services industry and for top corporate officers. By threatening to withdraw this support, economists can engage in rent-seeking. I call this last practice academic entrepreneurship.

Is it really plausible that economists threaten top banks that in the absence of some kind of payoff, they will change the theories they teach in a direction that is less favorable to the banks?
There are certainly cases in history of the following sequence:

a. Economist E espouses views that are less favorable to certain special interest groups S. Doing so threatens the ability of S to extract rent from the public.
b. Later, E changes his view, thereby withdrawing the prior threat.
c. Still later, E is paid large amounts of money by representatives of S in exchange for services that do not appear particularly onerous.

For example, let E = Larry Summers and let S = the financial services industry. In 1989 E was (a) a supporter of the Tobin tax, which threatened to reduce the rent extracted by S. This threat was apparently later withdrawn (b), and in 2008 E was paid $5.2 million (c) in exchange for working at the hedge fund D. E. Shaw (an element of S) for one day a week.

Isn’t it offensive to assume that economists, for motives of personal gain, shade their theoretical allegiances in the directions preferred by powerful interest groups?
How could it ever be offensive to assume that a person acts rationally in pursuit of maximizing his or her own utility? I’m afraid I don’t understand this question.

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