Saturday, September 12, 2015

My _____ Is Better than Yours!

Neil Irwin at The New York Times has a sad little piece on the pissing matches between economics departments.

Why is a newspaper like the Times concerned in the slightest over which economics department is best? What does that mean? It's clear why Stanford or Harvard or MIT would be concerned -- donor dollars. But nobody would suggest that X being best means that every economist at X is better than any economist at Y, or that all the work emerging from X is better than any work from Y.

And why is it the people that make one better? It's the obsession with star names that leads less wealthy schools to spend fortunes building a handful of superstar departments, spending fortunes on a handful of faculty. Do the students benefit? Do junior faculty? Is there better funding for any but the superstars? Harvard, Stanford and a handful of others can buy almost anyone they please. But NYU or Berkeley -- outstanding schools with outstanding economics departments -- can't. Why not create a better overall climate for students and faculty and worry less about the superstars?

Isn't it the quality of work coming out that matters? Certainly, the work is tied to the people, but if research is the real standard, then economists and the reporters who follow them around like little puppies might do well to consider some history. Twenty five or thirty years ago, many would likely have said that Chicago's was the 'best' department. Now, many would say that much of the work done at Chicago was politically driven hokum. (And who would now deny that political ideology drives an enormous part of economics?)

It's telling that in no natural science would this kind of chest beating take place. There are tempests in teapots over the 'best' physics or biology department and there is something sense to saying one is better than they other, but few worry so much about status because the work is the standard. By contrast, economics (and political science) seem to be little more than personality cults.