Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

There are few things I love more than a completely pointless and meaningless controversy. Fortunately, recent (and ongoing) events at the University of Chicago have provided us all with one particularly tasty one - the furor over the yet-to-be-established Milton Friedman Institute.

Five months ago, the University administration announced that it planned on setting up a research institute for Economics which would ostensibly attract scholarly talent from all over the world. With the hallowed nature of economics at U of C, it made eminent sense to establish a separate institute centered on economics research. The school is (in)famous for its Economics department; it has links to 25 Nobel winners in Economics, more than any other educational institution in the world. It has an entire paradigm/school of thought named after it - the Chicago school of economics - that symbolizes and promotes the idea of free-markets and little government intervention in the economy.

One of the central figures in the growth of the Chicago school was Milton Friedman. Whatever one may think about his ideas, there is little doubt about his contribution to the discipline of economics - even Paul Krugman, an economist at the opposite end of the spectrum as Friedman, regards him as a "great economist and a great man." His status as a monumentally important figure in the discipline is unquestioned. These considerations led the administration to want to name the research institute after Friedman, and to provide an initial endowment of $200 million.

In what can only be regarded as an attempt to outflank those Muslims who took umbrage at the Danish cartoons, students and faculty at the school have decided to express unmitigated outrage at this affront to humanity. A body called the Faculty Senate - a body whose existence, I must confess, I was not even aware of until this week - met this week to discuss this burning issue. To give you an idea of the level of outrage we're dealing with here, the last time the Faculty Senate met was in 1984, when it discussed divestment from South Africa because of its policy of apartheid. The central demand of the faculty and some students seems to be: name it after someone else, because Friedman was controversial, and a right-winger to boot.

I'm sorry, but I simply fail to understand what all the fuss is about. I say this as someone who's sick and tired of being asked where I study Political Science, responding, and then being told "Dude! That's such a conservative school!" (No, that's the econ department and the Law School you're thinking of). I also say this fully cognizant that this stance might cause me some street-cred in left-leaning academic circles. But again: I really don't understand what the fuss is all about.

Leave aside the fact that the faculty was completely absent and expressed little support on an issue that actually mattered - that of increased funding for graduate students in the social sciences and humanities - one that actually would influence the quality of life and education at the school for everyone involved (faculty, grad students, and undergrads). Actually, let's NOT leave that aside. Let me ask the faculty quickly: where were you guys then? When we were out in the quad on brutally cold Chicago mornings asking for health insurance and asking for TA salaries to be at least one third of that of "peer institutions", where were you? Where were your meetings and emails and demonstrations and faux outrage then? Did any of you even consider having a token strike, or expressing solidarity with graduate students - students without which your classes would simply collapse? And now you're pissed off about a name? Please.

Anyway, I find this entire controversy remarkable. I'm willing to let you make up your mind about this. Read these two paragraphs from the primary group on campus responsible for taking issue with the proposed Milton Friedman Institute, and tell me what you think:
The proposal to name an institute after Milton Friedman aroused objections from many faculty members across campus. Highly respected for his technical work in economics and a vigorous polemicist in popular media, Friedman consistently depicted the free market as the solution to all problems and saw government involvement as not only counterproductive, but an affront to human freedom. He was, however, happy to work with governments when they imposed the free market policies he favored—most famously Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile (see Klein, Grandin). In the U.S., Friedman advocated for the abolition of social security, the privatization of education, and the legalization of drugs (see Krugman, and Rayack), consistent with his libertarian views.

Our view is that naming such a major institute after Friedman is a symbolic endorsement of his views by the University. The guidelines of the Institute, as detailed in the report (excerpted here), appear to reinforce this view. They indicate a very narrow research scope even within the field of economics, not to speak of the complete disregard for other disciplines involve in the study of “economy and society,” such as sociology, anthropology, and political science. Typically centers of such magnitude at the University of Chicago are meant to foster interdisciplinary work among faculty of different departments and divisions. This hardly seemed the goal in this case.

My understanding of these objections is this: first, Friedman expounded on ideas we find reprehensible. Second, Friedman implicitly supported or associated with brutal dictators. Third, naming an institute after him constitutes "a symbolic endorsement of his views" and that is a big no-no. I'm sorry, I just don't buy any of this. Woodrow Wilson was a bona fide racist, and yet Princeton's school of international affairs is named after him, and I don't see any Princeton students up in arms about that.

The silver lining in all of this is, of course, the humor. Last week, a professor in the Econ department, and a member of the Milton Friedman Institute committee, reluctantly allowed for the possibility of a name-change.

In a move that surprised Institute advocates, economics professor James Heckman, a member of the Institutes’s faculty committee, said during a public panel Tuesday that he was open to the possibility of changing the Institutes’s name, a proposal that several colleagues firmly rejected.

“I think it’s a good idea. We could change the name,” said Heckman, a Nobel Laureate who worked with late economist Milton Friedman at the U of C.

Then backtracked:

In a subsequent e-mail interview, Heckman emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of the committee.

“This is what I should have said: I personally would not object [to renaming it]. However, it would probably cost the initiative a lot of support,” he said. “Short answer: I am open to any idea, but we should look at the costs.”

And then had this exchange with a professor at the Business School, which I will not comment on, and choose to leave you with:

Some of Heckman’s comments set off alarm bells for his fellow Institute committee member, GSB professor John Cochrane, who has long argued that the Insistute will maintain academic integrity.

In an e-mail to Heckman, Cochrane wrote, “My strong, personal suggestion is that you are digging yourself deeper and deeper into public statements that you will regret. Now, not only is Friedman’s name expendable, the GSB political, but President [Robert] Zimmer ’rushed this through.’ He’ll be delighted to see that in print. You may have long, convoluted explanations, but that won’t do much good when this sort of thing gets out.”

Cochrane was in part referring to comments Heckman made explaining the positions of Institute opponents. Heckman had said that some of their objections stem from their belief that Zimmer rushed plans for the Institute.

According to Cochrane, Heckman’s comments about academic bias and renaming the Institute were not on behalf of the Institute’s faculty committee.

“I don’t know what Jim is talking about lately,” he said, adding that changing the name of the Institute could be a “disaster” for the University. Opponents of a name change have argued that it could alienate donors.

Heckman e-mailed Cochrane a terse response to his concerns: “Screw off, John,” he said.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

What in the world are you ranting about!?? Who cares!

Anonymous said...

BO-ring.

Rabia said...

jeez, I guess no one wants to talk about Milton Friedman! It's actually really funny because I've heard the austrian economists think that Friedman was too much of a government interventionist whereas the liberals and keynesians think just the opposite.

Ahsan said...

Anon707:

I agree that this entire thing is a waste of time and that, ideally speaking, no one should care. My post was really an anti-rant if you think about it, because it urged people to STOP complaining.

Rabia:

I'd really like to meet these Austrian economists. I've never, ever, EVER heard of Milton Friedman being accused of advocating too MUCH government intervention.

blog reader said...

would you pleasenot copy freakonomics blog entries?

Ahsan said...

Blog reader:

Hahaha. I just noticed that Levitt has a post on this too. You will notice, I am sure, that I posted mine more than 12 hours before he posted his.

Asad said...

i can't decide which is more ridiculous; your two page rant on "a completely pointless and meaningless controversy", or the fact that i actually read the entire bloody thing.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What a boring post.

NB said...

Vaisay everyones pretty harsh huh. Then again I guess they wouldnt stick around to read 5RS if they werent.

Ahsan I think we can add another characteristic to the list that defines a frequently commented post

It must be Islam Bashing or West Loving or Fata hating or Aunty related and now, as we have discovered, phenomenally boring. Except that all the comments will tell you how much you suck.

Ahsan said...

NB:

Hahaha yes. Although it's a nice change to be castigated for being boring rather than being faux non-conformist or stupidly following the West. I mean that very seriously.

Everyone else:

I'm shocked - shocked! - that you guys don't find the politics of academia entertaining.