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The Ideologues of GMU
As you probably know, I’m a professor at the George Mason University Department of Economics. One of the most unusual features of our department is that we have many thousands of fans all over the world - folks who admire our work and admire us. A lot of these fans are students at other universities, including most of the top U.S. universities. We’re the unofficial professors who supplement their “official” professors.
I’ve met hundreds of such students. Here’s what they typically tell me.
As you’d expect, they’re GMU fans because we say so much that differs from what their official professors tell them.
One major difference is ideological: GMU professors are a lot more libertarian than their official professors.
Another major difference is sheer iconoclasm. Official professors respect - or at least fear - current political orthodoxy. GMU professors don’t agree with every thoughtcrime (who does?!), but we’re happy to at least entertain almost any forbidden idea.
Then there’s breadth: GMU professors care about much bigger and more interdisciplinary questions than their official professors.
Finally, students detect big gaps in curiosity and enthusiasm. Most official professors, they aver, are boring and narrow. When a student asks them questions, their goal is to swiftly end the conversation and get back to work. GMU economists, in contrast, love, savor, relish, adore, and hunger for intellectual conversation.
That’s what our student fans say. What, though, do the official professors say when students ask them about GMU econ?
To be blunt, the official professors are not kind. True, most are aware that we’re alive. That’s a big implicit compliment; after all, as Hollywood knows, the only thing worse than being talked about is… not being talked about. But what the official professors explicitly say is decidedly uncomplimentary:
“Just a bunch of ideologues.”
“They don’t do real research.”
Are the official professors correct? Let’s start with the “ideologue” charge.
If an “ideologue” is anyone who accepts some Big Ideas, then GMU economists are clearly ideologues. But then again, virtually every professor accepts some Big Ideas. You might think that being a moderate Democrat isn’t a Big Idea, but of course it is. Almost everyone throughout human history would have strongly disagreed with most of what moderate Democrats believe. To be a moderate Democrat is to say that you’re right, and the rest of humanity is wrong. Possibly true, but definitely big.
If an “ideologue” is anyone who accepts some Big Ideas dogmatically, then the label seems unfair. GMU economists are very familiar with other views, we value conversation and debate with people who disagree with us, and we produce what at least appear to be actual arguments. No one’s perfect, but we at least try to start with broadly acceptable premises and see where they lead. Not to be unfriendly, but a large share of non-GMU-econ academics are dogmatic slumberers by comparison.
Finally, if an “ideologue” is anyone who accepts some Big Ideas that are currently unpopular in academia, then the shoe fits GMU like a glove. But considering the timeless pathologies of hysteria and herding, perhaps current academic popularity isn’t a strong sign of truth.
What, though, about the, “They don’t do real research” accusation? It’s true that most GMU economists rarely publish in top five economics journals. The same goes for almost all academic economists, of course. Getting into top five journals is crazy hard. The difference, I suppose, is that most academic economists who don’t publish in top five journals humbly defer to the rarefied economists who do publish in top five journals. GMU economists, in contrast, present ourselves as top economists even though by standard professional metrics, we’re not.
Fair enough. I don’t speak for my colleagues, but my honest response is that I consider standard professional metrics deeply corrupt. I reject the Labor Theory of Value in all its forms, with all its empty promises. Despite the immense effort required to get into top five journals, 90% of their articles have little intellectual value. And most of the remaining 10% still aren’t as illuminating as a really good blog post. And most of the articles that are better than a really good blog post still pale before a really good book. Yes, I know that’s self-serving. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
You could respond, “Your megalomania alone qualifies you as an ideologue!” Perhaps. But I’m hardly speaking from ignorance. I really have read many hundreds of articles in top journals. When I step back, I’m not impressed.
Truth be told, I doubt many of the official professors are too impressed, either. Sure, they may devour papers written in the last few years - or forthcoming in the next few years. How often, though, do the official professors bother to go back and read whole issues of top journals from five, ten, or twenty years ago? Nor is this apathy likely to change. Do you really think that five, ten, or twenty years from now, top scholars will be reading the 2022 issues of the AER, QJE, JPE, or Econometrica?
They’ll still be reading my books, though.
That’s not ideology. That’s hard fact - and it speaks volumes. If even the work that you claim to most admire will soon seem disposable to you, your admiration is hollow. If you’ve got tenure, why not admit these ugly truths and start producing intellectual products of lasting value? When you do, the “ideologues” of GMU will be waiting with open arms.
P.S. I sincerely mean all this in the friendliest possible way. As I’ve said before:
If you have tenure at a top school, none of my negativity should depress you. Today is the first day of the rest of your career. Why not chuck conventional standards and start doing research that really matters to you and the world? If you want to chat about how to get started, just email me.