Postscript: David Brooks’ star professors!

MONDAY, MAY 7, 2012

Where have these star players been: Last Friday, David Brooks did a column about the onset of on-line higher ed.

He worried that the world’s “best teachers” may soon be found on-line:
BROOKS (5/4/12): Many of us view the coming change with trepidation. Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?

If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty? Will academic standards be as rigorous? What happens to the students who don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptop hour after hour? How much communication is lost—gesture, mood, eye contact—when you are not actually in a room with a passionate teacher and students?
Mordantly, we chuckled. We recalled the day when we were taking college courses—in philosophy, no less!—from some of the nation’s star professors. We sat in rooms with 500 note-taking students, wondering why they didn’t mimeograph the lecture and pass the darn thing out.

There wasn’t much “eye contact” going on. You can be darn sure of that!

Will the learning be fantastic once our “best teachers” go on-line? As we glanced across the page at Paul Krugman’s column, we wondered where these star professors have been over the past many years.

On this same day, Krugman wrote a slightly bowdlerized version of his on-line work. The GOP has been taken over by manifest bullshit, he said:
KRUGMAN (5/4/12): [T]he takeover of half our political spectrum by the 0.01 percent is, I’d argue, also responsible for the degradation of our economic discourse, which has made any sensible discussion of what we should be doing impossible.

Disputes in economics used to be bounded by a shared understanding of the evidence, creating a broad range of agreement about economic policy. To take the most prominent example, Milton Friedman may have opposed fiscal activism, but he very much supported monetary activism to fight deep economic slumps, to an extent that would have put him well to the left of center in many current debates.

Now, however, the Republican Party is dominated by doctrines formerly on the political fringe. Friedman called for monetary flexibility; today, much of the G.O.P. is fanatically devoted to the gold standard. N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard University, a Romney economic adviser, once dismissed those claiming that tax cuts pay for themselves as “charlatans and cranks”; today, that notion is very close to being official Republican doctrine.
In this column, Krugman noted that the GOP is now dominated by crackpot doctrines. On-line, he often takes this one step further, noting that intellectual leaders of the western world often repeat these crackpot doctrines, providing intellectual support for the world’s plutocrat parties. Absent such support from the academy and the press, the GOP would have a much harder time making these doctrines stick.

Brooks is dazzled by our star professors. We’ll ask a question we’ve asked before:

As crackpot theories have infested our world, where have these various star players been? Professor Krugman has pushed back hard.

But where have the other stars been?


  1. "But where have the other stars been?" - b. somerby

    ive often wondered about that myself. perhaps they are raising their hands, but the corporate media wont call on them? or, refective of the populace generally, they just dont care enough? or, they are of a culture which sees it as unseemly to speak out? ...

    1. Academics usually mind their own business, and don't get involved with public controversies. Writing letters to the editor or a column in the mainstream media doesn't contribute to your CV, and may get you branded with the awful sobriquet of "popularizer." Academics are usually happy to be quoted in the media, but what they get to say is then determined by the reporter and her editor, which can be a turn off.

  2. "I'm old, I'm rich, and I'm white. What can they do to me?" P. O'Neill

    Turns out, there's a lot that they can do to anyone singing from a different hymn book. Just ask Joe Wilson, or Al Gore.

    The media superstar commentators are simply paid performers; it's easy to understand their motivations. But what about professionals who should (and probably do) know better? Are they just bought off?

    That's the obvious conclusion reached by the increasingly incredulous Krugman. Reading him and William Black leaves you shocked at the extent of the level of incompetence and dishonesty on display.

  3. There is no reward and some potential harm in speaking publicly from academia. If you are interviewed and your views are distorted (as is inevitable) it diminishes your reputation because people think you actually said the things you're quoted as saying. If you blog you're suspected of neglecting your real work. If you publish outside journals, you are seen as definitely neglecting your real work. The main route for academics to influence society comes from what we say in the classroom. Does it surprise anyone that education is being reformed these days (under the guise of response to a financial crisis)?

  4. They've been at:
    and other sites including this new address

    Granted, not all listed above are Ivy League professors, but they do have a solid foundation in economics.

    The question should be, "Why aren't these other stars featured more prominently in media?"
    That is Bob's point here.

    We have no-nothing politicians allowed to spout whatever voodoo economics they want, and no economists to challenge them. And we do know why.

    And yes, politicians are allowed to spout nonsense on any subject under the sun without any serious rebuttal on most "serious" news shows.

  5. There is a larger question about why serious social science does not inform legislation and policy in general. The first president to incorporate academic research into policy was Clinton. After that, no one, including Obama.

  6. Krugman may be correct that the government should borrow and spend a lot given today's economy, for all I know. However, his argument is weak. Here's why:

    1. Today's enormous national debt and annual deficit are different from what they were in the past. Krugman ignores the enormous risk to our currency from continuing these deficits. At some point, foreign lenders are going to jack up the interest rates they charge the US. If they raise interest rates by 5 percentage points, it will cost an extra $800 billion/year to roll over our debt of $16 trillion. That will throw us into a hole that makes today's economy look rosy.

    2. Saying that Milton Friedman agreed with monitary activism under very different circumstances doesn't tell us what Friedman would believe in today's economy. Friedman is dead; he can't defend himself.

    3. Calling Republicans "fringe", "fanatics", "charlatans", and "cranks" is merely ad homimen. These nasty labels are ironic in an article complaining about "the degradation of our economic discourse" and blaming others for that problem.

    4. Krugman ignores the fact that Mr. Obama's stimulus was a failure by Mr. Obama's own standard -- namely that it would keep unemployment under 8%.

  7. well, 4% unemployment, when was the last time we had 4% unemployment, let me guess, President Clinton? And that was only 4 times.

  8. And it was 4 times in 8 years, by the way...