Arnold Kling  

Town Vs. Gown

PRINT
Paul Samuelson... Where is the Failure?...

Two recent articles discuss economic and sociological divides in politics. Joel Kotkin writes,


Kerry's challenge, Sperling and his three co-authors declare, is to convince voters in swing states such as Arizona, Colorado and the industrial Midwest that they should get hip by becoming more "metro" and less "retro."

Memo to Kerry: If only it were that easy.

There are lots of reasons why this analysis is wrongheaded. It's based on a significant misreading of many key economic indicators. And it doesn't recognize where Americans who aspire to upward mobility make their homes.

David Brooks writes,


There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people. Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don't shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats.

Brooks fails to footnote C.P. Snow, the author of the 1950's classic on The Two Cultures. Snow saw a similar divide between the humanities and science/engineering.

Both Kotkin and Brooks point to data on the political proclivities of academics. Kotkin writes,


Harvard faculty are the second-largest source of direct campaign funds from employees -- behind the massive University of California faculty -- to the Kerry campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

Brooks cites the same data, and adds

Academics have had such an impact on the Democratic donor base because there is less intellectual diversity in academia than in any other profession. All but 1 percent of the campaign donations made by employees of William & Mary College went to Democrats. In the Harvard crowd, Democrats got 96 percent of the dollars. At M.I.T., it was 94 percent. Yale is a beacon of freethinking by comparison; 8 percent of its employee donations went to Republicans.

Can the gowns win the towns? Kotkin is skeptical.

Ultimately, the answer to the Democratic Party's democratic deficit won't be found among the dons in Cambridge, the patricians on Beacon Hill or the celebrities in Malibu. It will be found in identifying and understanding the strivings of middle-class people living in unfashionable tract suburbs, working-class city neighborhoods and small towns across the country. Until the Democrats find a way to connect with these people, they will find their own fortunes receding in the face of an enormous field of opportunity.

Some of my thoughts about academic isolation can be found in Real World 101.

One of the issues with which I struggle in teaching my GMU course is integrating my business experience with my academic learning. For example, take the topic of "profit maximization." In academic economics, it means solving a mathematical optimization problem. In business, you don't have the equation to work with. You're guessing about what will sell, to whom you can sell it, and how much it might sell for. You're guessing about how you can get technology to fit together, and how new developments could affect you. I never used calculus in my business career. And yet, I am not sure that it is right to ignore textbook economics altogether in teaching the subject.

For Discussion. Will the town/gown split be as severe in ten years?


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (11 to date)
Lawrance George Lux writes:

The split, though it is mainly imaginary, will remain with Us. The real reason behind the heavy perpondance of Democratic contributions from academics lies in academic knowledge, not lack of diversity. Conservatives point solely to the fact that Profits are coming in, and ignore other considerations. Leftist Economists might state that the Recession is actually still with Us, due to the fact of declining total Labor Incomes coincident with a rapidly expanding Debt-Government and Consumer. Academics define these elements, while middle-class suburbia react only to pronouncements of President and Newspaper. lgl

actus writes:

"There are two sorts of people in the information-age elite, spreadsheet people and paragraph people. Spreadsheet people work with numbers, wear loafers and support Republicans. Paragraph people work with prose, don't shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats."

The interesting thing is that the 'spreadsheet' people in the white house are the ones that don't have the facts behind them -- note the recent Cheney if-only-we-counted-ebay flap, and its the white house that is ruling by prose -- 'ownership society', 'axis of evil' etc...

Funny how so many of Brook's ruminations turn out to be exactly the opposite of the facts.

walker writes:

And yet, I am not sure that it is right to ignore textbook economics altogether in teaching the subject.

I am not sure how much value there is in teaching an unrealistic theory. Though I understand there is a standard curriculum that no one teacher can discard easily, I think a lot of people are walking away from the typical microeconomics course with a very misleading picture of firm behavior. Perhaps worse, respect for the field of economics as a science is diminished when a clearly unrealistic model is basically taught as truth by its leading figures.

Perhaps some widespread reform in the micro curriculum is in order.

shamus writes:

The town is paying the freight for the gowns. Rent seekers will always be split from rent payers.

Sam Jew writes:

No matter how many bales of hay the preoles manage to move from point A to point B, they will never produce the economic resources necessary to produce the computer you're viewing this message on.

For that, you need an economically parasitic priestly caste.

Brad Hutchings writes:

One of the issues with which I struggle in teaching my GMU course is integrating my business experience with my academic learning.

Fascinating observation. It sounds like your struggling to show relevance of the theory. I see a similar issue in academic computer science vs. software development. I know that undertsanding of the theory and the academic experience are huge advantages for people who have them over those who don't, but there is a cause/effect disconnect. One example from theoretical computer science where the theory can really be applied to a lot of real-world problems is graph theory (nodes and edges -- networks, not graphs of functions). Several times in my career, I have used graph theoretical notions and practices to do end runs around people who didn't think that way and had no chance of ever thinking that way. A more specific example of useful theory might be computational geometry. You can't do computer aided manufacturing in today's market without incorporating the bleeding edge theoretical results.

Anyway, I imagine there is some theoretical economic notion which an intuitive understanding of the math gave you some competitive advantage in your business over everyone who didn't have it. Take the Internet Bubble Monitor -- well, it's not a business example, but -- you were one of the few voices that said the excesses of the new economy were not only unsustainable, but would have future negative repurcussions. Perhaps those observations in the late 1990s were concrete descriptions of intuition that told you to sell Homefair.com or even to get into it in the first place... Intuitions that nobody other than a trained economist could have. While it would be kinda useless to give your students a list of insights that will help them, it would be very valuable to help them learn how to recognize and leverage important insights they come across in their academic training.

Robert Schwartz writes:

And Why Am I paying $45K/yr to send my kid to college to "learn" from these fools. If there is a revolt of the numbers people, I will be out there throwing cobbelstones. This has got to stop.

Arnold Kling writes:

"I imagine there is some theoretical economic notion which an intuitive understanding of the math gave you some competitive advantage in your business over everyone who didn't have it. "

In finance, there is Black-Scholes. In the credit and mortgage industries, statistical modeling is an advantage.

But the mathematical stuff I learned from high-level undergrad economics on did not get used.

When it come to anticipating the Internet Bubble (and in fact I anticipated it back in 1995 when Netscape went public), I relied not on a mathematical model, but on what I was tuaght by economic historian Charles Kindleberger. His model of "manias, panics, and crashes" emphasized what he called displacement--a new technology or international situation that created riches and then fed greed. I thought that fit the Internet well. No calculus required.

Walker writes:

Several times in my career, I have used graph theoretical notions and practices to do end runs around people who didn't think that way and had no chance of ever thinking that way.

One major difference between micro's (Marshallian) theory of the firm and graph theory is that the latter is offered as a pure mathematical tool, while the former is offered as an empirically valid model of firm behavior.

Graph theory, like arithmetic, cannot be challenged on empirical grounds, its technological worth is measured in its applicability to deriving algorithms, and there is no question that it is very useful to this end. In contrast, micro's theory of the firm would only be interesting if it had a connection with real firm behavior.

Robert Schwartz writes:

I read all of the letters from Ivy League science department Liberals in the NYTimes today and it hit me. They are all welfare mothers.

Academia lives off the Federal Teat and has developed the classic symptoms of welfare dependency, including slavish dependency on the Democrat Party.

Sam Jew writes:

Are you suggesting academics are socially-lecherous because some of their funding comes from the government? Doesn't the government get their money's worth?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top