Bryan Caplan  

Tabarrok Should Bask in His Victimhood

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Knowledge Problem... Freedom to Cell...

A new study finds that academia discriminates against right-wingers. Alex Tabarrok wishes it were true, but isn't buying it:


I must admit that for a moment I enjoyed basking in my own victim hood. My failings are not my own but are due to discrimination! Ahhh, that feels good.

Much as I would like to lay my failings at the feet of the system, however, I cannot do so... I... reject these studies out of intellectual consistency.

Alex doubts that markets discriminate against women. Why? Basic economics predicts that in a competitive market, firms that don't hire on the basis of merit don't last. Advanced econometrics tells us that controlling for differences in workers' quality makes apparent discrimination shrink substantially or vanish. If he is theoretically and empirically suspicious about the reality of discrimination against women, asks Alex, how can he give discrimination against conservatives any more credence?

The main problem with Alex's analysis: The economics of discrimination assumes that firms maximize profits, and can't produce at more than minimum average cost forever. Neither assumption holds for universities. Universities are non-profits. If chairmen or administrators figure out a way to get higher quality professors for lower wages, their pay does not go up. In fact, their lives probably get harder, because their "cost-cutting" efforts will provoke a bitter backlash on campus.

Ask yourself: Why don't department chairs fight to replace senile tenured faculty with bright, eager graduate student instructors? First, they pocket essentially none of the savings; second, their lives would become a living hell.

But how can universities produce at higher than minimum average cost forever? In the case of government universities, it's obvious. They've got tax subsidies to keep them afloat. In the case of private universities (and public universities too!), it's almost as obvious: They've got alumni donations to keep them afloat. Either way, in the university industry, it is NOT "sink or swim."

In theory, then, we should not be surprised if universities discriminate against women, conservatives, or anyone else. The only question is: Who does the hiring, and who do they have a "taste for discrimination" against?

Like Alex, I don't think universities discriminate against women. But my reason is not that discrimination is a one-way ticket to university bankruptcy. No, my reason is that the people in charge of hiring professors like - indeed, prefer - to hire women. Maybe not in math and the hard sciences, but most academics want to assuage their liberal guilt. (And even math and hard sciences face pressure from administrators who want to assuage their liberal guilt). I've repeatedly heard academics insist "We really need to hire a woman!" Sounds like a taste for discrimination against men to me.

In contrast, people in charge of hiring professors do not like - indeed prefer not to - hire conservatives, Republicans, or libertarians. Some hate those bastards; others simply feel uncomfortable around them. Dan Klein's findings of overwhelming ideological imbalance in academia speak volumes. I doubt if the median professor has a single close right-wing friend. Again, this is probably not too important in math and hard sciences, but if research and politics connect, your politics affects whether people want to hire you.

Like Alex, I can't complain about how academia treated me. I'm blessed. But:

1. There is huge selection bias. Alex and I are libertarian professors. You've got to sample over all the right-wingers who wanted to be professors, not just the ones who made it.

2. One reason I chose economics was because I correctly perceived it to have the weakest left-wing bias of any social science or humanity. Otherwise, I might have done philosophy. If economics were as leftist as most social sciences, I might have become a lawyer instead. (Egad!) I can't believe I'm the only potential professor who weighed these factors in his occupational choice.

3. Even if we control for quality of publications, the gatekeepers - journal editors and referees - also feel virtually no financial cost of rejecting articles they find ideologically distasteful. So there is probably more discrimination against right-wingers than the data suggest, not less.

4. If there is no discrimination, how does it happen that Alex and I and half the other staunch libertarian economists in the world are all in the same department? Segregation is the predicted effect of worker-on-worker discrimination. And that's what we see.


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/243
The author at blogs for industry in a related article titled HIring bias in academia writes:
    There's an interesting exchange between http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2005/04/consistent_disc.htmlAlex Tabarrok and http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2005/04/tabarrok_should.html Bryan Caplan on the liberal bias in academia qu... [Tracked on April 26, 2005 10:27 AM]
The author at blogs for industry in a related article titled Tabarrok v. Caplan revisited writes:
    Earlier today, I noted some an exchange between Alex Tabarrok and Bryan Caplan on whether or not liberal bias in academia leads to significant discrimination in hiring or promotion. Tabarrok's argument is a form of the Larry Summers theory of why wom... [Tracked on April 27, 2005 12:55 AM]
The author at CornerSolution in a related article titled How certain are we on Evolution? writes:
    William Butterfield My academic buddies always give me a hard time because I am a regular church-goer and a septic on evolution (and of course I admit that the former influences the latter, but being an academic also influences your [Tracked on May 15, 2005 9:13 PM]
COMMENTS (18 to date)
Lawrance George Lux writes:

Bryon,
Indeed it is a Rogues Gallery! How can you live with Buchanan and Vernon Smith in the same Dept. I wonder if Joe Reid remembers me. lgl

Bill Woolsey writes:

How bad is placement going?

Is a GMU PhD the kiss of death?

Are your more libertarian graduates more
difficult to place than your less libertarian
graduates?

My opinion is that there are plenty of
Schools of Business that will hire economists
who are at least as libertarian as Milton
Friedman.

My guess is that it is Marxist economists
who suffer the real discrimination in
the U.S. academic market in economics.

There are, of course, horror stories about
University-wide tenure committees. But
I am familiar with a few cases where top
administration sides with the Business
School Dean and over-rules them.

I realize The Citadel is an unusual place,
but I am generally known as a libertarian.
I have never had problems with the other
economists or other business school faculty.

If there are other faculty who are concerned
about my teaching or research, no one complained.

I was even elected chair of Faculty Council.

The school has a teaching mission and grants
a limited number of Masters Degrees (no PhDs,)
so maybe some might consider a career there
to be a fate worse than death.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

It is wrong to think of non-profits as outside the world of economics.

No one who runs a non-profit thinks "how can I reduce the size of my organization, take in less revenue, and reduce my budget?"

The people who run non-profits are power maximizers, if not profit maximizers. They will engage in the political and charitable markets to maximize their revenues.

If having lots of leftist staff helps you gain money from politicians or contributors, of course that is what you will do...

Economics is everywhere.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Basic economics predicts that in a competitive market, firms that don't hire on the basis of merit don't last.

No it doesn't.

It predicts that firms that don't hire on the basis of productivity don't last. Let's not confuse the two. In a society where there are strong biases against a certain group of people, hiring a member of that group may easily damage productivity, no matter how meritorious - intelligent, conscientious, etc. - the individual hired.

Variations of this error lie at the core of a lot of silly ideas about discrimination.

dsquared writes:

Basic economics predicts that in a competitive market, firms that don't hire on the basis of merit don't last

No it doesn't. "Basic economics" doesn't really have much of a theory of the firm at all. When you reach a level of economics sophisticated enough to account for any remotely empirically realistic features of industrial organisation, you can no longer make this glib generalisation. Among other points:

1. Many firms work on production lines or other Taylorised systems in which employee "merit" is more or less irrelevant to output efficiency above a threshold.

2. It is entirely possible to be in a situation where there is enough prejudice among consumers to outweigh any differences in "merit" among workers - for example, the chief waiter at Alain Ducasse is a very good waiter, but I doubt he would get a job at Hooters/

3. Most importantly, any realistic model of competitive structure (as opposed to toy models of competition) is unlikely to throw up the result that any firm producing at below-peak efficiency is bound to go bust.

I'd humbly submit that this ludicrous application of toy economics models to real-world situations (which is utterly out of the spirit of Austrian economics, by the way) might be another reason why you're not getting much traction here.

David Thomson writes:

“Basic economics predicts that in a competitive market, firms that don't hire on the basis of merit don't last”

This sentence needs to be slightly modified:

Basic economics predicts that in a competitive market, firms that don't hire on the basis of merit don't last----in the long run. And Keynes was right, in the long run we are all dead. In the short run, however, it may very well be beneficial for a comp[any to discriminate. I’m sure that any firm in the Old South might've paid a severe price for hiring a black professional. Racist southerners were similar to the frog that is unaware it is being slowly boiled alive. Their economy suffered because of racial discrimination, but they rarely grasped that harsh fact.

David Thomson writes:

I should add that I am very cautious in thinking that rationality by itself (see the movie, The Fog of War, where Robert S. McNamara explains this very point) will prevent people from doing something stupid. Norman Angel wrote his Nobel Prize winning “The Great Illusion” in 1910. He argued most convincingly that war between the great powers is senseless in the modern age. No intelligent person could disagree. Needless to add, World War I began a mere four years later.

Slavery never made any big picture economic sense. It discouraged innovation which is mandatory if one desires to increase the productivity rates. Sadly, we still had to fight the Civil War which cost the lives of half a million people.

Boonton writes:

The main problem with Alex's analysis: The economics of discrimination assumes that firms maximize profits, and can't produce at more than minimum average cost forever. Neither assumption holds for universities. Universities are non-profits. If chairmen or administrators figure out a way to get higher quality professors for lower wages, their pay does not go up. In fact, their lives probably get harder, because their "cost-cutting" efforts will provoke a bitter backlash on campus.

Really? A university will not get more students if they lower their tuition? Less if they jack it up to be significantly higher than their competitors? Declaring yourself a 'non-profit' magically exempts you from economics?

But how can universities produce at higher than minimum average cost forever? In the case of government universities, it's obvious. They've got tax subsidies to keep them afloat. In the case of private universities (and public universities too!), it's almost as obvious: They've got alumni donations to keep them afloat. Either way, in the university industry, it is NOT "sink or swim."

But just as no one is required to subscribe to People Magazine no one has to go to a particular university nor do they have to donate to their alma mater. Why is it that Harvard can charge super high tuitions and receive huge donations from alumni but a small college in some obscure state may find itself with empty seats despite having tuition that is only a fraction of Harvard's? It's interesting that advocates of vouchers for pre-college schools tend to also be critics of academic institutions in the US despite the fact that such institutions exist in a market much closer to the 'voucher model'. (Actually even more closer to a free market than a voucherized elementary/HS system would be since most people put up at least a portion of their money or their parents money to go to college).

Alex's point, IMO, is valid. There are a host of reasons for disparities in economic results besides discrimination. The right is basically reversing course and arguing for equality of results rather than their usual argument for equality of opportunity. If this was Jesse Jackson going after some big corporation for having 1% black executives instead of 12% the right would be up in arms. Yet they are happy to assume discrimination when it suits them without actually producing any actual victims of discrimination.

While I think that there is some bias against libertarian/academic conservatives, I don't think it has yet been established that such discrimination is a significant factor in observed faculty ratios. For example, how much of the current distribution could be explained by self-selection? Would-be libertarian scholars may find more and better opportunities in the business world, for example. Or at think tanks.

As Schelling pointed out, you don't need discrimination to explain why ethnic, or in this case, ideological "ghettos" emerge. All you need is a preference on the part of the minority to be nearby at least a few other minorities. See Jonathon Rauch's April, 2002 Atlantic Monthly article "Seeing Around Corners" for more details regarding Schelling's research:

http://garnet.acns.fsu.edu/~jstallin/complex/readings/The%20Atlantic%20%20April%202002%20%20Seeing%20Around%20Corners%20%20Rauch.htm

Lancelot Finn writes:

Discrimination against conservatives is not comparable to discrimination against women, because conservative politics is not irrelevant to a professor's job qualifications in the same way that gender is. To take an example, Bill Woolsey writes:

My guess is that it is Marxist economists who suffer the real discrimination in the U.S. academic market in economics.

Marxist economists should suffer from real discrimination in the academic market, for the same reason that math professors who believe that 2+2=5, or history professors who believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1812, should suffer from discrimination in the academic market: these people all believe in propositions that are demonstrably false and absurd, and their beliefs demonstrate that they are ignoramuses who would fill their students' heads with nonsense.

The question is: does the same critique apply to conservatives? Are conservatives less likely to be professors because they're just, for the most part, dumb and wrong? If we assume that critical thinking leads people to hold leftist views, and that the universities' job is to train people in critical thinking, then it's perfectly appropriate that there are few conservatives and Republicans in academia.

Of course, the actual situation is the exact opposite: critical thinking today is practiced almost exclusively on the right, while the left mouths ancestral pieties; and universities are less likely to train students in critical thinking than to train them to see critical thinking as a reactionary instrument of corporate oppression and bourgeois values. But you can't address this problem by talking about "discrimination," because ideologically-neutral hiring is not comparable to race-neutral or gender-neutral hiring. Ideally, we would keep the ideological discrimination but reverse it: being ready and willing to uphold traditional values and the free enterprise system would be a prerequisite for the top academic jobs. This would be better both for the production of truth and for faithful stewardship of taxpayers' money.

For now, complaining about "discrimination against conservatives" might be a useful political ploy, or, to put it less cynically, a mnemonic device, a way to remind taxpayers that their money and their children are going to campuses where their views are disdained and trashed, and they should get mad and hold colleges accountable. But we should not make the mistake of thinking it is an intellectually satisfying description of the universities' problem.

Boonton writes:

Imagine two groups have the same average quality (whatever that means) but different distributions of it. In other words, suppose that conservatives tend to be either very brillant like William F Buckley or very stupid like Mike Savage. On the other hand suppose that liberals tend to be neither far above or below average.

The result would be hiring a lot of liberals and a few conservatives but no discrimination would exist.

Bob writes:

A logical point about distributions, although you may find yourself savaged by the Harvard faculty...

But this would imply that you'd find less of a gap at the "elite" institutions. I suspect the opposite is true. If anyone reads the Klein papers, you'll see that the "problem" is getting worse.

IMO, there is some truth to a bias among conservative-types to go into the private sector. But I do think it's worth thinking about, and maybe worrying about, students getting a one-sided picture during their formative years. Personally, I'm not worried because college students are not that impressionable and many are not even listening....

David Peterson writes:
Marxist economists should suffer from real discrimination in the academic market, for the same reason that math professors who believe that 2+2=5, or history professors who believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1812, should suffer from discrimination in the academic market: these people all believe in propositions that are demonstrably false and absurd, and their beliefs demonstrate that they are ignoramuses who would fill their students' heads with nonsense.

Postmodernism has some grip on academia, so I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't necessarily true.

Andrew M writes:

My own department chair is trying to replace clapped out old professors with energetic new PhDs. He's doing it not because it will lead to bigger raises for himself, but because (i) it will improve his work environment by making for more interesting colleagues and (ii) improve the national ranking and prestige of the department he belongs to, which makes him feel good about himself. Selfish motives are not limited to pecuniary ones. But obviously I don't know how widespread such motivations are among chairs, and I should add that for several years we had a chair who did nothing.

Also, in certain deliberations in my department concerning job candidates it has been explicitly agreed that we should make them an offer, because of their quality, even though they had a reputation for being difficult to deal with.

Boonton writes:
My own department chair is trying to replace clapped out old professors with energetic new PhDs.

It's interesting how adjectives can subtly shape our perception of truth. Imagine I replaced the word 'clapped out' above with 'seasoned' or 'wise' or even 'Gandalf-like' and replaced energetic with 'inexperienced' and you see how the picture changes dramatically.

David Peterson writes:

In defense of Bryan using the word "merit," a firm can not know how productive someone is before they work for that firm, thus they must be hired based on merit. Their continued employment and pay is based off of merit.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

In defense of Bryan using the word "merit," a firm can not know how productive someone is before they work for that firm,

My point in the case of racial or other discrimination, and dsquared's in the case of Hooter's, is that productivity and merit are simply not the same thing, and that certain characteristics that have nothing to do with individual merit affect productivity.

In a society which does not want to watch black athletes perform, the finest athletes imaginable will not be productive in the economic sense if they are black.

So I object to the use of the word "merit" here because it ignores the context of economic decision-making, and tries, not-too-subtly and I think wrongly to hint that economic motives will eliminate discrimination.

Boonton writes:

Let's look at Bryan's observations:

1. There is huge selection bias. Alex and I are libertarian professors. You've got to sample over all the right-wingers who wanted to be professors, not just the ones who made it.

2. One reason I chose economics was because I correctly perceived it to have the weakest left-wing bias of any social science or humanity. Otherwise, I might have done philosophy. If economics were as leftist as most social sciences, I might have become a lawyer instead. (Egad!) I can't believe I'm the only potential professor who weighed these factors in his occupational choice.

3. Even if we control for quality of publications, the gatekeepers - journal editors and referees - also feel virtually no financial cost of rejecting articles they find ideologically distasteful. So there is probably more discrimination against right-wingers than the data suggest, not less.

4. If there is no discrimination, how does it happen that Alex and I and half the other staunch libertarian economists in the world are all in the same department? Segregation is the predicted effect of worker-on-worker discrimination. And that's what we see.

#1 I'm going to leave this one aside for a bit.

#2 Wait, did he choose economics because he thought it was the least likely to treat him unfairly or did he choose it because he found it the 'least liberal'?

If it is the latter then what would be the effects on a larger scale. Economics will become less liberal but sociology will become more so. After all, if conservatives choose to shun sociology then the department will be left with more liberals. This doesn't fit the profile of discrimination by academia, though.

#3 Perhaps, but has Bryan faced discrimination in the relm of journals? HAs he had good studies rejected only because the reviewer didn't like his politics? As for there being no cost, does that mean editing is a worthless profession? Why do journals employ editors at all? If it is the buttress the reputation of their journal (whether it be an ideological reputation (aka "the best conservative journal") or a professional reputation) employing a biased editor has a huge cost. Imagine the cost to the obscure journal that rejects an insightful article from the next Milton Friedman?

#4 Segregation is a predicted effect of worker-on-worker discrimination. Thomas Schelling has shown how segregation can be generated by decisions that do not involve discrimination.

For example, Bryan noted that he was interested in economics 'cause it was the least left wing of the social sciences. What do you know, Alex happens to be in the department he joined. Do you think Alex made the department more attractive to Bryan? If so then it's easy to see how a little libertarian ghetto can form in academia even without any discrimination.

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