Help, Help! I’m being repressed!

I’m watching the re-re-renewed debate about academic bias against conservatives with a little more skin in the game this time around. Two facts about me: for some strange reason I’m considered conservative by my academic friends, especially by non-economists, and I have decided to take a job outside of academics. So clearly there’s bias in the academy! (Where do I pick up my check.)

Megan McArdle has a great post up where she makes the standard analogy between racial and political bias and she points out that, in true fashion for partisans, the table and arguments used have done a 180. Conservatives are arguing against subtle biases inherent in the the system and liberals are calling the game because there’s no explicit rules against hiring conservatives in the academy or they are otherwise blaming the out-group.

The analogy may be apt but you would be upset with me if I said so and I also said, “who cares”! So, I’ll do just that. The academy and places of employment, say, are free associations of individual people. If these places want to exclude interesting people because of arbitrary differences, then its their loss. In the long-run Beckerian forces prevail and the non-discriminating universities and firms win.

Well, except, I care. The long-run could be a very long time! Life consists of the transitions between steady states. Without a model of how fast those transitions are and, importantly, what shapes they take, analyses of the properties of steady states is next to useless. I want to help progress along a little even to just make it visible within my lifetime. I’m selfish like that.

But there are also standard externality arguments. The academy produces non-rival and non-excludable ideas that are used to produce innovations that drive economic growth. By excluding conservatives, the academy makes the idea generating process less efficient and we all lose out. We need to subsidize Rush!

What’s upsetting about these reasons to care about discrimination is that they don’t apply to racial discrimination or other types of discrimination that I care about much more than bias in the academy. First, I’m not creative enough to make the externality argument for blacks or women. Why does discrimination against them harm me, a white male?

Second: of course the long-run is undetermined with regards to racial discrimination too, but it is not clear that the long-run transition to equality is being driven by the dynamics of discrimination. While there’s significant evidence that anti-discrimination laws had an effect on closing wage gaps, there’s much less certainty about the size of that effect. One estimate has the black-white male wage gap in the South BEFORE the CRA halving every generation or so. The CRA sped up this transition, but only in the South and only for a decade or so. The half-life reduced to about one half a generation in the decade or so after the CRA but there has been no improvement in the black-white southern male wage gap since. This sweeping legislation appears to have had minimal long-run effects, at least with regards to wage gaps. (PS – these stats are from memory, look up the . Donahue and Heckman paper if you don’t believe me)

One option, at this point, is to throw up my arms and to insist discrimination is no big deal. It will fix itself in the long-run and there doesn’t appear to be anything that we can do to speed up the transition to that long-run. But there’s a larger argument about externalities, ones at the foundational level of institutions and the structure of rules.

Tyler Cowen linked to a new paper from Buchanan that points out that the “rules of the game” are endogenous, they are not given, and more importantly non-rival and non-excludable. There is a “market” failure in the production of rules. The rules of the game are inefficiently produced; there is some marginal change to the set of rules that could make everyone better off and there needs to be some meta process that ensures these Pareto improvements can be made (Buchanan cites Coasean political entrepreneurs). The argument against discrimination: if the rules of the game are arbitrarily deficient for some large group of people then its possible they could evolve to be arbitrarily deficient for a group of people that I belong to. I have interest in making sure there exists a process that removes these sorts of deficiencies.

3 thoughts on “Help, Help! I’m being repressed!”

  1. Caplan argues that universities are not profit-maximizers and thus not subject to Beckerian anti-discrimination forces. I’m sufficiently callous that I think the right (which I may loosely identify with) are a bunch of disingenuous whiners who mostly don’t want to be in academia anyway.

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