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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What Happened to Chicago's "Life of the Mind"?

Via email:

For someone with close ties to the place, the changes in the economics department at the University of Chicago are incredibly sad.

Steve Levitt, the future of the Friedman/Stigler/Becker tradition of microeconomics is turning his Freakonomics blog in to a carny side-show, most recently with a smirking post about breast implants and a gruesome murder. Meanwhile, Richard Posner tries to make a principled stand in favor of serious intellectual discourse on macroeconomic policy, but is so out of touch that he ends up channeling Steven Colbert. It's hard to recall any instance in which an author so publicly and completely undercut his own argument.

Milton Friedman used to speak with nostalgia about the things that made Chicago unique. When he arrived, it was far away from both the corridors of power and from the east-coast bastions of accepted wisdom. It was the kind of place where as a young academic he could make claims that no one else believed: The data from the great depression actually showed that monetary policy was extraordinarily powerful. Exchange rates trade in open market; traders at the commodities exchanges could even write futures contracts on exchange rates. The government could finance public education without being the provider.

These ideas, all widely accepted now, were heresy when Friedman proposed them. But Chicago was the kind of place where you could take an unusual stand. Your colleagues would take your ideas seriously, challenge them, probe them, help you decide if they were right. 

Over time, the willingness to challenge the prevailing consensus that characterized the Chicago School has devolved into smug willingness to shock. Friedman's colleagues held him accountable. Where are the colleagues who could keep Levitt and Posner from flying off the rails? The debates that the department was once so proud of, the ones that constituted "the life of the mind," have been replaced by blog posts. 

Posner, of course, made his career by pushing the limits, famously with his 1978 paper on adoption. In retrospect, the tone then had already begun to change. He had a serious point to make, but he was just a little bit too eager to be the bad boy and get attention. Friedman could have given the same analysis, but is hard to believe that he would casually dropped in a reference to the "the baby market."

Steve's post about the brutal murder of the young woman certainly got attention, including a comment that starts, "He he." What his point could possibly be, other than getting attention, is hard to imagine. Read the post and the comments that follow if you ever have trouble remembering why so many people hate economists.

In truth, Friedman did also pioneer the role of economist as celebrity. He balanced the conflicts this raises remarkably well, but in the end it is not a healthy mix. If Levitt and Posner are the role models that the next generation at Chicago look up to, the future is grim.

    Posted by on Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 10:18 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (33)


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