Thursday, September 12, 2013

Economics: Ideas vs Politics

I was recently corresponding with a fellow economist, a friend and ex-student, and he mentioned having organized a session at some meetings in honor of the late Earl Thompson of UCLA. I responded by commenting that I too was an admirer of Thompson's and remembered James Buchanan having once said something to the effect that Earl had the highest IQ of anyone he knew. My friend described having spent very many hours as a graduate student arguing with Earl Thompson, to their mutual enjoyment.

The reason I think the exchange is interesting is that I, my friend, and Buchanan were all pretty far on the pro-market side of the economics profession. Earl was  not. The first time I encountered him, he was giving a talk (at the public choice center at VPI sometime in the 1970's) offering clever arguments in favor of things that I and most of his audience were against. He did not, ultimately, convince me, but his ideas changed how I thought about certain theoretical issues in an important way, in particular convinced me of the importance of taking account of commitment strategies.

To me, this is a story about how the academic world is supposed to work. What was important about Earl, to all three of us, was not whether he agreed with us but whether he had intelligent and interesting ideas. Which he did. He will be missed.


Tibor said...

Could you post a link or two to those clever arguments of his? I would love to hear the good advocates of what I am biased against. Unfortunatelly, I mostly only encounter people arguing with things I have heard many times and have entirely convincing (at least for me) arguments against, so clever arguments for state interventions would make a nice change and could help me make sure my own opinion is as little biased as possible (I guess it is not possible to be entirely unbiased in anything you actually care about...but you can at least make it a bit more balanced). Thank you.

Power Child said...

I like that. I wish the academic world could work that way too.

Can some well-designed institutional architecture or philosophy make academia work this way? Or can the academic world only work this way when the involved parties are as rational and emotionally in control of themselves as you and your friends/fellow economists?

David Friedman said...


I'm afraid the arguments were verbal, and I no longer remember the details. You could do a search for his published articles.

Anonymous said...

dave i saw your "debate" against george constanza at porcfest. as some one with deep mathematical economics background i thought you were way better. in fact apart from may be ambiguity aversion research and some behavioural economics research you have taught me something really new and really really expanded on the things which i think are possible. it is a shame you publish only in law journals, it would be great to see your ideas and historical research mathematised and published in a proper mathematical economics journals. its just that its hard to take anything not published in an econ journal seriously nowadays.

Tibor said...

David: I've tried a quick search and found this:

If anyone else is interested, this is Thompsons webpage which lists his articles. It could save you search time.

I'm afraid that in order to understand his articles properly, I will have to get a solid elementary background in economics first. So far, my only actual textbook on economics was the Samuelson's book (used in an optional lecture on macro and microeconomics in the first grade at the uni) and I have not even read that all that thoroughly back then. But I wanted to learn a bit of actual economics anyway. Fortunatelly, I should at least not have problems with any maths that could possibly arise in economics.

David Friedman said...


If you want another source for economics, my price theory text is webbed on my site.

Tibor said...

David: I'll check it, thanks.

John Lott said...

Thanks for posting this David. When I went to UCLA it was my impression that was the way that all of academia worked, with people having strongly different views and us arguing about them all the time. It was the fun of the process. Indeed, with Earl there was almost never an end to the debate. If I ever successfully pointed out a flaw in his argument, he simply changed an assumption and the argument was off again as if nothing had ever happened. Arguing with Earl was some of the most fun that I have ever had.

John Lott said...

I should also add that Earl's thoughts on commitments greatly influenced my own work and I must have gotten a dozen plus papers that came about because of my thoughts on those issues. Of course, my dissertation might not have been done if it wasn't for Earl's work on public provision schooling.

Simon said...

"Can some well-designed institutional architecture or philosophy make academia work this way?"

Maybe decentralization and competition could help?
I suspect that the sheer size of universities (~20,000 people in each) is a problem. As there is a relatively small number of elite institutions and of universities generally, it's a bit of an oligopoly. Maybe this weakens the incentives to do the right things.

Imagine if the guys who give large donations to Stanford and get buildings named after them instead created their own little independent institutes. We would then have a larger number of institutions and perhaps a healthier competitive situation.

Lorenzo said...

David Glasner's blog Uneasy Money has various posts and links to Earl Thompson's work

I got quite annoyed with one paper by Thompson because he talked about China being on the gold standard, when gold was rarely a monetary metal in Chinese history. But any specie standard counted as a gold standard for Thompson's purposes in the paper, and I did not think that was a helpful way to consider the history at all.

That being said, even that paper had some seriously intriguing ideas in it

Jim Rose said...

see "On Labor's Right to Strike," Economic Inquiry, October 1980, pp. 640-653 for an exmaple of his impishness. he argues that many strikes increase business profits.