Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Incidence of Intellectual Diversity

We now have lots of measures of diversity in the academy, by which I mean heterogeneity in race, gender, geography, political attitudes, etc.  At this weekend's Stanford Conference on Academic Freedom, much discussion focused on the chasm between the political composition of the academy and the general population.  A debate ensued as to whether/how this is related to academic freedom and whether/how public policy should advance affirmative action for "deplorables" (we deplorables use that term affectionately).

Such regulation is likely dangerous and imprudent, in part because the incidence of such diversity is poorly understood.  Small, and not necessarily frequent, voluntary actions can make a big difference.

I first noticed this as a college student circa 1990 when political correctness was surging.  Moreover, the large majority of my college classmates were quite unserious about academics, putting more time and effort into various extracurriculars and activism (South Africa was one of the big topics).  But adapting to the latter was pretty easy.  I fulfilled distribution requirements by taking courses like physics and computer science with the respective majors rather than the general ed versions that were watered down by popular demand.  I took many economics courses in the graduate schools and over at MIT.

While extremely serious about their studies, the graduate students were politically correct too.  More salient to me was a fair bit of group think around both policy and technical issues.  It seemed to me that they too uncritically accepted the Keynesian visions of much of the faculty.  Dynamic programming was nonexistent until Benabou (MIT) and Leahy (Harvard) came to town during my senior year, and still was quite a niche topic.  With some effort I found Stokey-Lucas-Prescott at Harvard Press, but I searched what seemed like every bookstore in the greater Boston area for Sargent's Dynamic Macro Theory (also a Harvard Press book) until finally acquiring a copy during a Christmas-break-blizzard trip to the Seminary Coop in Chicago.  

During a typical day on campus I would attend class, say, asking Professor Larry Summers something like "the trade deficit is a real variable -- why should nominal variables like currencies be our primary explanation of why they change over time?"  [He and Feldstein were teaching that the U.S. trade deficit had to decline, which required a significant depreciation of the US $ especially vs the yen].  Summers especially would often provide a mocking answer, typically provoking a hearty laugh among my classmates.

Here Robert Barro made a big difference without necessarily much effort [he invested in us students in many other ways too, but that is another topic].  The small number of students (of various ages) with interests closer to mine ended up working with Barro, and that's how we students met each other.  Barro had an extra desk on the second floor of NBER that I shared with Xavier Sala-i-Martin, Randy Kroszner, and (at various times) Michael Kremer, Serge Marquie, Jaume Ventura, and Holger Wolf.  After classes I would go to the NBER and recount my classroom exchanges with Xavier, Randy, etc.  With them as a friendly sounding board, I suffered no harm from Summers' nonanswers [see also the sequel in WSJ and WaPo].  Quite the opposite.  Their support helped me learn to stand on my own, and helped me find the few dynamic programmers in town (Barro would take several of us to Hoover one summer where I also met Sargent, McGratten, Judd, and others with overlapping interests).  I was learning that even the "smartest" people at the best universities had vulnerabilities in their arguments, which were betrayed by a refusal to engage.

The lesson here is that faculty can help a lot just by helping students find each other, especially on intellectual dimensions like those mentioned above.  As long as the intellectual minority is not so small as one, they can get a better education than the majority do.  Sheer numbers automatically exposed me to the group think, while just a few minority friends can be enough to facilitate engaging alternatives.  The raw distribution on campus need not be anywhere near the population distribution for at least the minority to benefit from intellectual diversity.

Several of the participants at this weekend's conference reported similar experiences.  Being alone is tough, but a few sympathetic colleagues go a long way.  Indeed, having the conference helped with that too.  The sorting aspect reminds me of Milton Friedman's description of the formation of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947, which seemed quaint and anachronistic in 1998 but suddenly now needed as much as ever.

To be clear, my classmates did not gang up on me for being skeptical of the prevailing views.  Politically incorrect views did occasionally spawn cancellation campaigns, although not as frequently as today.  Certainly numbers play a role in mob rule, although even today the mob itself is already a minority, albeit outspoken.

1 comment:

David R. Henderson said...

Wow! Interesting stories, especially about Larry. Sometime I'll tell you about when, as the newly appointed Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in spring 1993, he threatened to sue me.