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Socialist-ologists

In what could be the most awful thing I have read about the social sciences in over a decade, the sociologists display their utter contempt for economists in this Inside Higher Ed piece:

“the same old cast of characters,” and that means economists.

On this point I agree. There should be no economists in Washington, but then again I don’t believe any intellectuals, or much of anybody should be there.

“I have economist envy on a good day and worse things on a bad day,” he said.

So my colleagues in sociology either envy me or hate me. How’s that for collegiality! And this is from an influential leader in the field.

“It’s not that the president is short of advice, but there is a lack of legitimized and organized social science at the highest levels of policy formation.”

Two doozies here. The first is the utterly unscientific nature of the accusation. I’d like the good professor to provide some examples of what this means. Is he upset that the cash for clunkers program was not designed to aid car purchases for women and minorities, who of course are discriminated against by the evil auto industry? Second, he baldly calls economists disorganized and illegitimate. I wonder why he would make such a claim? I’m rather glad it is out in the open, rather than being kept under wraps for the sake of collegiality. No doubt economists are unpopular – I always believed the reason was because of our understanding of the concept of scarcity, but I do not suspect this is the good professor’s reason.

“For me, the agenda [of pushing for a new social science council in the White House] “is figuring out what we need to do to get ourselves a seat at the table.”

The pinnacle of your profession is to have a say in Washington? Forgive me for being crass, but I though the pinnacle was in educating young people, and conducting high quality, respected research. Perhaps there is a need for sociologists to help design social programs and teach bureaucrats how their constituencies better, but this is nothing more than a plea for sociologists to be the ones designing economic policy. I don’t even believe economists should be in that business. But should someone not have at least a minimal amount of economic literacy before getting a seat at the table. Nothing in the linked article indicates even the slightest understanding. But I guess I am not allowed to say such a thing, since “the system” is set up to advantage me and for me to exploit an underclass of poor people, and women and minorities (but not Asian Americans), and I don’t take this into consideration when I remind folks that candy doesn’t rain from the sky, or that people respond to incentives, or that culture and mores and institutions matter in all economic systems, or that a world populated with purely utility maximizing automatons is a boring world, and that taxes and subsidies are typically highly distortionary, that tradeoffs are everywhere, etc.

When the sociologists get a seat at the table, will they really speak truth to power for their favored research subjects? If so, then they will speak out against the minimum wage, which less than 2% of the workforce earns, and a small percentage of these folks are in the “targeted” poor income groups? Will they speak out against the formation of unions in many cases – while nominally formed to protect workers, they really were an instrument of men (against women and children) and white men (against blacks) to keep out lower priced competitors? Will they speak out against occupational licensing – which prevents many poor people and minorities and women from becoming entrepreneurial? Will they speak out against rent-control, which only makes it more difficult for urban dwellers to find homes? Will they track the performance of families over time, to see how well their standards of living are as compared to the past, or will they continue to spout the party line that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer? Will they speak out against the regressive sales tax and payroll tax? Will they speak out against the corporatist rot that is disseminating throughout our political system? I doubt it. But these are all examples of where horrible economic policy has made life more difficult for the “oppressed” groups that sociologists claim to have a better understanding of.

I seriously doubt an honorable inquiry and exchange could be had about the “best way” to help these individuals – the debates would rather tend to be about imposing their preferred “corrections” for the injustices suffered by these groups. If anything in the realm of commercial society, free exchange, liberty and contract seems to be in the interests of these poor oppressed individuals, do you really expect the sociologists to support it? Just look at the contempt many of them express right in the article for other sociologists who disagree with their ideas – ask them what they think of James Coleman.

Maggie Anderson of the University of Delaware said that many kinds of information aren’t getting attention “when the discourse is so controlled by economists.”

For example, she said, most of the public discussion of the economy takes place “as if the economy were race, class and gender neutral.” While men and white men are facing economic difficulties, Anderson said that the experience of women — as being vulnerable to job loss, as facing life without health insurance, as shouldering burdens for caring for low-income children, and so forth — is not getting enough attention. Sociologists know how to do research to point out the different impacts of economic policy on different groups and why group differences matter, she said.

Boy, that’s news to me. Is the discourse really be controlled by economists? It is pure politics, plain and simple. Just look at how the President and Congress have been “campaigning” for their health reform and global warming programs. Are economists really behind a “public option” or a cap system? Quite the contrary – economists (as if we were a living, breathing entity) would favor a mix of deregulation and subsidies for the poor and chronically ill when it comes to health care, and certainly a carbon tax (coupled with payroll tax reductions) when it comes to climate change – both of these would be vastly superior for the women and poor than current proposals. So who is controlling the discourse? And the implementation? And to suggest that serious economists are not studying (and being heard) the impact of the economy on women and other groups is pure sophistry. In fact, many of the most important and interesting ideas from economists in the last decade have been from people studying just that. Emily Oster, Fran Blau, Marianne Bertrand, Justin Wolfers, Betsey Stevenson, all the folks studying development, payday loans, microfinance, etc – where exactly is this claim coming from, and how can it not be scrutinized?

 “But their supply and demand curves don’t deal with these questions,”

Umm, yes they do. In addition to teaching our principles courses with a keen focus on the bigger questions, we also teach courses on labor markets, gender, discrimation, law, crime, the environment, development, history, and more. Once again, where does this person get these ideas? Those might be true as far as popular perception goes, but it is far from the reality of where the trends in economics are heading. And where is this person’s evidence for this? Has she sampled economics classes, read my syllabus, polled people? Does she ignore the existence of Russ Roberts, Deirdre McCloskey, Stephen Margolis, David Colander, and the countless others who dedicate their careers to doing economics the way it ought to be done? Or how about I turn the question to the sociologists – do your sociological theories deal with issues of scarcity, public choice, incentives and the like?

“I don’t care if there are more economists running the major policy instruments, but I’d like it to be economists I agree with.” He added that “there are a lot of sociologists I wouldn’t want in the administration.”

So it’s not about getting policy right? Or achieving goals for reasonable costs? Nope, just so long as you can enjoy your wine and cheese and castigate the ignorant masses for not liking the idea of higher taxes and government intervention in their lives with other people sharing this view, then that is all right.

He then asked audience members how many of them have sent an e-mail to a member of Congress, attended a rally or engaged in other political activism to draw attention to societal inequities, the need for health care reform and other topics. About a third of the audience members had, but Dreier said that “if more of us don’t do this, we’re not going to get health care reform.”

I’d like to see the sociological “diagnosis” on what the health care problems. Where are their studies on the effectiveness of comparative treatments? Where are their studies on the cost of new technologies? Where are their studies on adverse selection in insurance markets? Where are their studies of the impact of third party payers on macro-expenditures? Where are their studies of the effectiveness of preventive medicine? Where are their studies of the “missing women?” Now, everyone has a right to be political – but does this directive above not seem a little out of line to anyone else out there? Should sociologists not be appealing to their students, to people in their communities, to readers of blogs, magazines and journals? The vast majority of effort economists spend is in reaching out to the masses. It seems the sociologists spend the majority of their time preaching about the masses to a small group of internal elites.

Asserting a role for sociology, he said: “The right economists are still not as good as the right sociologists.”

Once again, I shudder to think this is how my colleagues across the disciplines think about the academy. Is this all a great big competition? Ignore the truth of the comment – and think hard about its intention or meaning. I’d like to know exactly what this means, and how this fellow thinks about his fellow man, particularly those valuing different things than he does. Who are the right economists and what are they doing? Who are the wrong economists and what are they doing? And what would you do with us once you got up on top in the political realm?

This is really becoming an increasingly attractive idea for me.

3 Responses to “Socialist-ologists”

  1. Rod says:

    Here I thought sociology was one of those collegiate departments that served as an outlet for those students who were not up to real college-level study, like chemistry or mathematics (or, diplomatically speaking, economics).

    It’s creepy that the sociologists have any say at all in the advancing Obama agenda.

  2. azmyth says:

    This was a good post. There are always people within a discipline with agendas who are willing to sacrifice intellectual honesty for political power. It’s not like economists are somehow immune to that. Economists are quite varied in their approaches, priors and political beliefs. I read recently that less than half of economists said they were in favor of abolishing the minimum wage. We can’t even get all economists to agree that broken windows are bad for the economy (CFC, wasteful “stimulus”, etc). Economics is counter-intuitive and often seems to be immoral at first glance. I don’t blame people for not getting it, but it is dissappointing to hear such a vitriolic rant from someone who should really know better.

  3. skh.pcola says:

    Sociology and Social Work majors have to take a vow to advocate for socialist ideals, IIRC (although it might just be the creed of Social Work). The field (as both are focused on inane topics that further the socio-economic, ethnic, and racial divisions) is populated by unicorn-riding morons who can’t do much else than formulate normative, unrealistic policies that have failed many times in the past.

    Mark Perry at Carpe Diem has had a series of posts about the wide gap between female and male unemployment. Due to the vocational choices of the genders, female unemployment is considerably lower than male. The rote litany of Maggie Anderson is typical of the uninformed, sophomoric worldview of leftards who flit around in the rarefied air of sociology. Pfft.

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