Thursday, August 13, 2009

Economist Envy and the IT Revolution

By Richard Vedder

This is a two for one blog, like the old motion picture double features.

First, I had a good laugh over the wailing of sociologists reported in yesterday's Inside Higher Ed. It seems sociologists are disappointed, even mad, that economists are dominating the key policy positions in the Obama Administration. There is not a sociologist in sight.

This is amusing on several levels. First, economists often are accused of having physics envy, and trying to emulate the physical sciences with their pretensions of being "scientific", the use of math and models, etc., etc., etc. Yet deep down many of those economists have the same subjective, value-laden agendas that the sociologists have, but they disguise them in techno-babble. There may be a hierarchy of disciplines in terms of academic prestige, starting with the hard sciences and going down to the bottom (professors of education?) This is my amateurish sociological analysis of the situation.

On a second level, I am trying to think what sociologists could bring to major issues of our day --what impact will massive government borrowing have on America, or a huge increase in the money supply? How could sociologists have handled the crisis in confidence underlying last September's financial crisis? Urged a consideration of the race/class/gender implications of bank closings? Sociology is given less credence by politicians because they have little important to say about most of the truly important issues in the world. Whether economists are correct in what they propose, at least they are dealing with a foundation of some factual knowledge about important issues of the day.

One Nobel Prize winner in economics, Doug North, once told me that one of his proudest academic moments was convincing Washington U. in St. Louis to get rid of its sociology department. Jim Dorn, estimable editor of the Cato Journal, told me at lunch that Bill Meckling did the same thing at the University of Rochester, where the administration reallocated funds away from sociology towards economics and business. Whether Doug's and Bill's position was correct or not is debatable, but I think public policy has too many, not too few, experts guiding it, and adding sociologists to the mix would not be useful.

At a broader level, the issue of the importance of disciplines is an issue in resource allocation. Our good friend Joshua Hall of Beloit College told me that looking at majors at his college relative to faculty size over time, he was astonished at the huge variation, suggesting, probably, that there are too many resources allocated to some disciplines, and perhaps not enough to others. Where non-market forces dictate allocation decisions, that happens frequently and to a high degree.


We at CCAP believe that technology should be used to lower, not raise, higher education costs. Thousands of libraries buy printed copies of expensive academic journals. Why? Resources can be saved by simply sharing the issues on-line. A great resource has been JSTOR, which puts hundreds of journals on-line, but only after a multiple year lag, which compels libraries (or so they think) to still subscribe to printed versions. Now JSTOR is reaching agreement with the University of California Press to eliminate the time lag for scores of journals it publishes. If other publishers follow, the potential exists for importantly improving the way research is conducted and save some money for universities as well. Let us hope that happens.

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