It’s become common wisdom in the U.S. that non-transparent big money largely drives elections, legislatures, regulatory agencies, and much of the judicial system, eroding the public trust and reinforcing perceptions that law and politics, as well as economics, operates largely for the benefit of the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Academia appears to be the next frontier in big money’s conquest of public institutions. Perhaps much of that territory has already been ceded, often for a pittance.
How can intellectual integrity retain meaning when increasingly academic institutions measure scholarly merit by dollars transferred (grants in, businesses-enhancing “deliverables” out)? Economic history scholar Tiago Mata insightfully mulled over this question on INET (Institute for New Economic Thinking), as part of that organization’s effort to rise to the challenge to ethics in economics posed by Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job film. Ferguson documented how some economics scholars hugely influential in public policy routinely fail to disclose that they get paid to speak and write as seemingly independent experts by directly interested business clients. In his new book, Predator Nation Ferguson further develops this disturbing picture of economics scholars simultaneously acting as academic experts on the public interest and as sellers of this expertise to the highest private bidder.
As a citizen I am interested in the stakes of this controversy, perhaps more so than economists. I want voices that I can trust in the dust of factious debate. I want my taxes to pay for their independence and public service. But as an historian my intuition is that these wishes are both naïve and quaint. The professoriate’s extramural commitments are no longer an exception, liable to policing and containment. … We have neither the “Multiversity” nor the politically engaged professor, we have an entrepreneur scholar of uncertain loyalties.
Here, cross-posted from the Center for Progressive Reform, are my own comments from one field skirmish in the struggle over academic territory, where perhaps Mata would say I cling too tightly to this quaint notion of intellectual value separate from economic and political power.