Created: 99-04-14
Last Modified: 99-04-14
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Why I Am Glad I Am an Economist II:

A Harvard Story

J. Bradford DeLong

There is something about other social-scientific disciplines that provokes illiberal and destructive patterns of thought: a belief that quantitative measurements are not the base on which one's interpretation should be built but rhetorical weapons to be used for advantage, a belief that anecdotes are persuasive without inquiring into whether they are representative, an assumption that all elements of the current situation one likes are part of the natural order of things, and a belief that anyone else's use of economic or social power is profoundly illegitimate.

A brief story from the days back when I was a junior faculty member at Harvard:

One fall I got to see an economist--Larry Lindsey, now at the American Enterprise Institute, then running the introductory economics course--deal with what he saw as a problem: he was having a hard time hiring good section leaders. His proposed plan of action was simple--that Harvard should pay graduate students teaching introductory economics more money, should allow them to realize economies of scale by teaching two sections if they wished, and should provide them with more administrative support.

The following spring I got to see sociologists--James Davis and Orlando Patterson--deal with what they saw as a similar problem: they perceived that they had difficulty finding graduate student section leaders for sociology courses. Their proposed plan of action was also simple--that the sociology department should shun graduate students who taught outside the sociology department, and give preference to the "loyal" who taught sociology sections wherever possible. The heads of interdisciplinary programs--social studies and history and literature--were outraged, for they found sociology graduate students to be good section leaders and they had attracted them by treating them well (indeed, that was the source of the "problem").

And as I watched this sequence of events, it struck me that I should be very, very glad that I was an economist: that our instinctive reaction was to think of how we could make the alternative we sought more attractive so that people wouldn't be tempted to vote-with-their-feet and exercise their right to do other things; by contrast, the sociologists' instinctive reaction was to think of how they could punish their graduate students and so effectively deprive them of the ability to vote-with-their-feet to do other things.

And I have since found this general pattern to hold--that economists think situations are improved by widening people's opportunities, while sociologists (and many historians, and some political scientists, and some psychologists) think that situations are improved by narrowing opportunities and imposing discipline...

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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