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August 03, 2014


Will Davies

I could (and probably should) disagree with this in various ways, but I keep finding myself in conversations with fellow academics about some of the problems you identify, and wondering if management and government is *deliberately* turning academia into another example of what Graeber terms 'bullshit jobs': http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

The university holds the potential for so much that is brilliant, transformative and radical. Which is precisely why we now have to fill out research grant applications detailing exactly how much we intend to spend on the croissants at the parliamentary breakfast as part of the 'pathways to impact' which *will* (not might) lead to certain 'user beneficiaries' being impacted by our research in certain identifiable ways. Once you have been forced to behave like that (albeit, not necessarily think like that), various other things follow. Firstly, you grow to dislike your own job, which is a victory for those who are suspicious of intellectuals in universities. Secondly, your energy levels are already depleted, and your hope of saying something important and new is diminished. Thirdly, your time horizons are both shrunk and reorganised to think in terms of outputs/outcomes/croissants, which drastically undermines your capacity to work on something that might take years, but inspire others over a long period of time.

One thing that makes Piketty important, given that it's clearly not his policy recommendations, is that he reminds us what an academic can do/be, if not managed into smithereens.


The core principle of economics is division of labour which divides us all into customers and suppliers. This system works only when the customers who pay the bills are also the arbiters of whether value is being delivered by the supplier. It’s also essential that customers can and do replace underperforming suppliers.

Academic economists don’t appear to understand that this applies to them as well.

Academic economists see that everything bad is someone else’s fault. Politicians don’t listen because they are ideologues. Prime Ministers who got a 1st in PPE at Oxford are routinely chided for not knowing the first thing about economics. The press tell lies because they are corrupt. Non-economists who ask questions are too stupid to warrant a reply. Students who complain that their education is too narrow and divorced from reality are ignored. Researchers who can’t find useful information because of paywalls are irrelevant. Text books are out of date because publishers insist on it. Academic disputes between economists are due to the other economist being an ideologue / crazy / corrupt.

I don’t think that academic economists have understood that the Internet is going to destroy their role unless they get their act together. It may already be too late.

I do agree that the problem is not necessarily with individual economists. It is a cultural problem but that just shows the irrelevance of theory which says that economic behaviour is best understood by the actions of a representative rational agent.

Ken Clark

Interesting and (no doubt deliberately) provocative piece. I’m particularly interested in your view of how much (or little) new high quality research comes from UK academia. (Incidentally, I’m not sure whether you mean by UK academics those based in the UK or those from the UK. Most top UK departments are extremely international in character, more than 50% non-native born at my own place.)

As long as I’ve been an academic economist the impression has been that the “best” work originates in the US with the UK coming in second place. That’s changed somewhat over the years with more countries muscling in, however I would still have thought that the UK economics community “punches above its weight” (as they say) as apparently the UK does in research overall (see the BIS report here - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/performance-of-the-uk-research-base-international-comparison-2013). Rankings data might give some support to this position. For example the QS World University Rankings by subject (http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/university-subject-rankings/2014/economics-econometrics#sorting=rank+region=+country=+faculty=+stars=false+search=) has four UK institutions in the top twenty (five in the top 21!). Other rankings of course will give a different picture (Tilburg https://econtop.uvt.nl/rankinglist.php has three in the top 20, IZA http://ideas.repec.org/top/top.inst.all.html two but it includes thinktanks and international institutions ) but generally the UK comes out pretty well. The other point I’d make is that if you want to find the best new research on the UK economy, particularly in macro or labour, I think the top UK departments would be the first place to look.

And yes you may be right that there has been a lack of involvement in public debates by academic economists, however that is very definitely changing. The driver of this, although it may be hard to believe, is the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which puts increased weight on “impact” (on non-academic, policy audiences) in the formula by which funding is allocated compared to previous mechanisms. All UK institutions are encouraging their economists to blog, tweet and, more importantly, consider the end user benefits of their research. I think economists are on a learning curve here – some attempts at entering the public sphere seem forced or clumsy – but this trend towards more engagement is certainly a move in the right direction which can only be of benefit both to the discipline and wider public debate.

Finally I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame academics for the paywalls behind which their research might reside – that’s not usually something that the researcher has much control over. For new research, given the very long lags in publishing (which is to some extent a discipline-specific problem), pre-publication versions are generally available on websites or in discussion paper series – just Google it. For some older research, you might want to try emailing the researcher directly. Some of us are just grateful that anyone wants to read our work!

Anyone interested in the quantity and quality of work being done by UK academic economists should be encouraged to interact with the Royal Economic Society Conference in Manchester next March/April (http://www.res.org.uk/view/0/2015conference_home.html) or to look at highlights of previous events. While it's an international conference, a lot of the work presented comes from UK departments.

Ken Clark

Some of my links don't work. Corrected below.

BIS report: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/performance-of-the-uk-research-base-international-comparison-2013

RES Conference: http://www.res.org.uk/view/0/2015conference_home.html


@ Ken - Thanks for those comments. Yes, this is a glass half full/half empty issue, and I was emphasizing the empty.
I'll concede that there's good work on the labour market to be found. But even so, when I look for interesting research on finance, it comes mainly from outside the UK.
I'm delighted that things are changing. But there's one horrible fact here - that on two big issues (immigration & austerity) public opinion and the academic consensus differ greatly. Granted, this isn't mainly the fault of academe - but is it really blameless?
In this context, it could be that cutting-edge research isn't the issue. What makes Osborne wrong, for example, isn't a piece of new academic research, but our existing knowledge. Could it be that academe over-weights the margin of new research and under-weights the importance of the infra-marginal body of established knowledge, and the importance of communicating that knowledge?

Dave Timoney

Your reference to idiocy in the original Greek sense is illuminating but slightly inapt. Idiocy implied not merely non-participation in public life but a reluctance to develop the necessary skills of a citizen, which included what we would now call education (art, philosophy etc) as well as the political and the military. It was this lack of training that later led to the word being used to mean ignorant.

The structural roots of British academia lie in medieval scholasticism, which placed an emphasis both on learning and retreat from the world. Though religion gave way to reason, and the ideal to the empirical, the remnants of this ideology remain, and still inform criticism of academic economists ("ivory towers" etc). Academic idiocy is thus closer to Candide's gardening.

The last 30 years have seen the final extirpation of the structural support for this tradition, exemplified in changes to academic tenure, inspection and "product", as well as in the prevalence of campus security guards, the introduction of student fees and the competition of think-tanks for the donations of the rich.

The consequence is that success as an academic is now more likely to be measured in TV documentaries rather than primary reasearch. This means hard cheese for economists in contrast to historians. The Tudors recast as soap opera will always be more attractive than the mechanics of the labour market.

Ken Clark

Thanks for the reply, Chris. There is certainly an emphasis in academia on finding new results but that's the nature of research and why people do it. Whether it's at the expense of communicating what we think we already know, I'm not sure. Perhaps we academics assume that others (journalists, wonks, advisers) fill that role?

Is there a shortage of anti-austerian or pro-immigration academic economists, if you'll forgive the shorthand labels, who are prepared to put their views out there? Personally, I would say no but there is plenty of room between an academic consensus and public opinion for other factors to intervene, notably the tendency of people to listen to the advice which suits them.

Luis Enrique

As with the national football team, all the top economics departments contain very few Brits.


I think (though I'm not sure) that Ken is an honourable exception to Chris's complaints. IIRC correctly, he has helpfully responded to queries I raised in comments on Tim Worstall's blog, so he is not ιδιώτης.

Thornton Hall

Backwards. In fact, we need less academics in public life. There are no historians successfully destroying Greek lives. There are no English professors telling Kansas to bankrupt itself.


Why the disconnect between a hugely successful financial services industry and less impressive (in your opinion) academic financial research?

Is it because talent such as yourself is drawn to the City rather than the ivory tower?

Should there be any connection?

How come the US manages both?

Luis Enrique

Brit academic economists doing genuinely important work: Nick Bloom. Angus Deaton. Tim Besley. Imran Rasul.

Luis Enrique

I know I am beating a dead horse, but I would like to juxtapose

"guff about the money multiplier and central banks creating money"


" A culture of pedantry, maximally ungenerous reading "

one thing academics should be good for is managing to teach the IS/LM model without teaching students that central banks set the money supply, and teaching the money multiplier so that it isn't guff. Which I have done, not because I have any great virtue, but simply because that's how the venerable econ 101 lecturer I worked under had always done it. He certainly never taught students that the central bank could control the broad money supply via open market operations, because that would be rather like teaching that Western powers can install functioning democracies by invading Arab states.

Dave Timoney

@Thonton Hall, perhaps you are unfamiliar with the sterling work done by Niall Ferguson in normalising austerity.

Churm Rincewind

"It's likely that...the academic system - with the twin pressures of the REF and teaching burdens - cause academics to become institutionalized idiots."

Indeed. However, this has nothing to do with "the REF and teaching burdens". Twas ever thus. See Hazlitt on "The Shyness of Scholars" in 1836.

Thornton Hall

He is actually the perfect example. Journalists think he's an economist. If they understood he was a historian, they would ignore him.


Steven CLarke - the success of the financial services is more of a mirage, see the last 7 years for instance.

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