Friday, November 17, 2006

“Most economics departments are like country clubs” says a Nobel Laureate. Is This True?

“Most economics departments are like country clubs,” said James J. Heckman, a Chicago faculty member and Nobel laureate. “But at Chicago you are only as good as your last paper.” This quote is from Milton Friedman's obituary in today's New York Times.

I am not an expert on "deconstructionism" but it is still interesting to think about what this quote means. I've never been a member of a country club. I haven't stepped foot in such a club in 25 years.

So, what is Jim Heckman saying about every other department besides for Chicago?

One Scenario:

Department members engage in a "don't rock the boat" strategy. In this repeat prisoner's dilemma game people are nice to each other and do not mock each other's low productivity. Older tenured guys can rest on their laurels that in the 1970s they wrote some top journal papers. Now they can relax and consult and take up hobbies such as football watching. Young members of the department look at the old members and get a glimpse of their future. They can work hard when young , get tenured and then rest.

Heckman's point may be that from the Deans' perspective this is not optimal. A more obnoxious culture could shame smart people to keep writing academic papers and not rest on their past stock of output.

A possible counter claim is that in a friendly department, colleagues speak to each other more and that some of these social interactions improve the research being conducted.

If at Chicago, you are only judged on your last paper does this implicit tax lead researchers to write too few papers? If I know that my reputation hinges on this paper, could someone hide their work too long? This gets into the question of how you write a good paper? What is the production function? When do you allow your peers to see your work? will they engage and think about it?

I do think that Jim's quote accurately depicts my Chicago experience. It was not a very friendly place, it was a very serious place. Can a department have the best of both worlds being a happy, "fun" productive place? I think that both Harvard and MIT and Tufts would claim yes!