September 26, 2023

Economix: Faculty for Sale

Today's Economist

Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

If you don’t like what economics professors like me are saying, go hire your own. Of course, if they’re on your payroll, no one will be surprised if they agree with you, so it’s best to hire them indirectly, through a tied donation to a university.

Frustrated that so few students are reading your favorite book about the virtues of free enterprise? Offer highly respected universities money to make it required reading.

As Catherine Rampell pointed out in Economix last week, conservative foundations founded by Charles Koch and John Allison have actively pursued such strategies.

Deft investigative reporting by James Lardner at Remapping Debate shows how another foundation established by one of the country’s wealthiest men, Peter G. Peterson, hired professors at Columbia University to develop a “fiscal responsibility” curriculum for high schools in the United States that closely reflects his own “deficit hawk” views.

Jennifer Washburn, author of “University Inc.,” has argued for years that public higher education is being increasingly privatized by reliance on corporate and alumni donations.

Concerns about this trend are often framed in terms of academic freedom, putting the onus primarily on universities. After all, if they don’t like the strings attached to donations, they can turn them down.

An editorial in the St. Petersburg Times, which recently broke the story about the Koch Foundation’s support for two professorships at Florida State for which it has the power to screen appointments, musters some admirably old-fashioned outrage.

But, as that editorial points out, the issue reaches well beyond principles of academic freedom.

In the marketplace of ideas, people with a lot of money can buy whatever they want, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, they also have the power to influence other people’s ideas in ways that violate principles of justice, undermine democracy and distort the truth.

It’s difficult to agree on a bright line dividing what we should allow from what we should prohibit. But we can describe a spectrum of efforts to influence ideas that range from the innocent to the corrupt.

Political advertising that honestly states a point of view clearly represents a form of free speech. At the opposite extreme lie criminal activities such as bribing jurors or buying inside information to profiteer in stocks.

The messy stuff lies in between. Efforts to negotiate new legal and moral boundaries are sometimes described as normative meddling rather than objective science. Edward Glaeser seemed to take this position in his post last week on Economix.

But surely efforts to decide what money should be allowed to buy could be usefully informed by social science research. What happens when wealth and income, concentrated in a few hands, can purchase influence without restraint?

Many studies paint an ugly picture. In “Rich Media, Poor Democracy,” Robert W. McChesney argues that corporate control of media shapes the information available to most of the public, constraining democratic debate.

In “Merchants of Doubt,” Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document extensive corporate efforts to debunk scientific evidence of a variety of problems as diverse as cigarette smoking and global warming.

In “Winner-Take-All Politics,” the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson explain how the increasing influence of campaign contributions on electoral outcomes has effectively disenfranchised low-income voters.

I haven’t been able to find any comprehensive research on the consequences of efforts to tilt economic education in a more conservative direction.

Maybe it’s hard to find wealthy donors eager to finance that kind of research with no strings attached.

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