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Saturday, April 02, 2005

An Insider Looks at The Tribe

To those not in "The Tribe", academia can be a strange place. To those in it, it can be even stranger. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution the latest edution of Econ Journal Watch. While he mentions the tribute to Thomas Schelling, there's another article in the same journal, titled "The Ph.D. Circle In Academic Economics" (click on the page link in the table of contents) that's also a great read. It goes at great lengths into how the "market for ideas" among economists is very different than the market for just about anything else. These types of analyses are typical conversation for colleagues of mine, but we don't say it as well as this article. The section titled "If Waiters Were Like Economists" is particularly good:

Do the thought experiment. You arrive on a planet on which the market for waiters is like our market for academic economists. This otherworldly market exhibits the following features:

  • Each waiter job is controlled by a collection of other waiters, a Waiter Department.
  • Each Waiter Department spends money with very slight regard for the preferences of restaurant customers. Indeed, much of the money comes from coercive extractions from extraneous parties.
  • There are 200 Waiter Departments, but they all form an encompassing mono-centric cultural pyramid. Each Waiter Department gets whatever prestige and revenue-base it commands principally by adhering to the accustomed standards of the encompassing club.
  • Each Waiter Department produces the new young waiters, whom it tries to place as high up in the pyramid as possible.
  • Non-waiters are deemed unqualified to criticize the standards and practices of the encompassing Waiter club. Outsiders are ignored.
  • Waiters at departments at the top of the pyramid set the tone for the entire club.
  • Waiters carry on political discourse with restaurant customers.
  • Moreover, waiters at the top departments rub shoulders with political elites and power-holders. Sometimes, the top Waiters are appointed to positions of influence and power. Many aspire to be or imagine themselves to be part of society’s governing set. Their governing-set standing depends on playing according to the rules of conventional political culture. One of those rules is that one must accept the idea that society is an organization and government is the manager of that organization. One must affirm a basic faith in democratic political processes. One must observe that the appointed managers are like us, smart, socially-concerned people who can master the contours of society’s unknowability well enough to regulate social affairs beneficially. One must refrain from saying anything that might imply that much of what the government does is fundamentally a sham and a menace. As a result, among the top 50 Waiter Departments there is no voice or vitality for abolitionism.
It explains a lot, and should be read by anyone considering a Ph.D. in finance or economics.

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