January 18, 2010


Invasion Of The European Economists (Guy Sorman, 01.18.10, Forbes)

Thirty years ago, when he was an undergraduate studying economics at Milan's prestigious Bocconi University, "nobody even knew what an economics Ph.D. was," recalls Alberto Alesina, who earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard in the mid-'80s and today is a tenured professor there, an expert in macroeconomic theory. In a pre-Internet era, European students weren't aware of all the possibilities in the U.S.--it was hard even to find application forms. Alesina applied to Harvard, MIT and Princeton only because he had heard of the schools. As recently as 10 years ago, notes Christian Hellwig, a young German economist at UCLA, "no German university was delivering an internationally recognized Ph.D. in economics." (Hellwig did his graduate work not in the U.S., but at the London School of Economics.)

Nor did Europe offer much appeal once the doctorate was in hand. Zingales tried to return to Italy in 1984 after completing his degree at MIT, but the best job offer he could get was a mediocre research assistantship at a second-rate university. Twenty years later he might have won tenure at the school, he says, but only if he had the right connections. Even the best Italian universities--and this was true of European schools in general--were dominated by autocratic and hierarchical traditions. Without belonging to the right academic network and having the right sponsors, career progress was difficult, if not impossible.

Obsolete and disproved Marxist and socialist thinking also remained strong within European universities, including in economics departments. Many young economists, scientifically oriented and so recognizing the superiority of free markets, found the climate intellectually stultifying. It remains the case that most French and Italian universities teach economics as a philosophical subject--with opinions mattering as much as facts--not a scientific subject. A Keynesian, statist perspective still dominates most European curricula: free-market professors are an embattled minority.

American economic departments were--and are--much more rigorous and nonpartisan by comparison. Yet isn't there an ideological opposition between, say, the University of Chicago, known as a cradle of free-market theory, and Harvard, a supposedly liberal campus? "This perception hasn't much to do with reality," Bertrand responds. "We are scientists, above all; ideologies do not dictate our research or our teaching." Alesina, a strong proponent of markets, agrees: "The notion of Harvard being liberal and Chicago free-market doesn't coincide with academic reality."

The problem for Academics is that if you tried to put together an Econ Department that deviated from market orthodoxy no one would take it seriously.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 18, 2010 4:55 PM
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