Academic Self-Marginalization Not the Problem

Nicholas Kristof’s ill-conceived diatribe against the supposed self-marginalization of academics has come in for a fair amount of criticism, notably from Corey Robin. The most obvious problem with Kristof’s argument assertion is that anywhere you look in the policy sphere, you can’t help stumbling over academics left and right. Macroeconomics is an obvious one, but there many others. Take education, for example, where anyone pushing for any conceivable policy change can wave a fistful of academic papers in your face.

It’s easy to multiply examples of academics doing policy work or even occupying policy positions. The bigger question, and the less obvious problem with Kristof’s opinion, is whether more of us would do any good for the world.

Consider climate change. Here, academics have hit the ball out of the park. We know the world is getting hotter, and we know why, because of hard, painstaking academic research. There are two main reasons why we’re not doing anything about it, and neither is a shortage of op-eds by professors.

The first is a well-funded campaign by fossil fuel companies and anti-government ideologues to spread misinformation. That’s just politics, given the state of American campaign finance law.

But the second is a media that refuses to call out people for simply lying about science, relying on the formula of “expert A says X and expert B says Y” instead. And a media that compounds the problem by giving prime real estate to the unqualified climate change-denying drivel of people like George Will. In other words, the journalists–Kristof’s profession–are a big part of the problem.

On most policy questions of any importance, there are enough academics doing work to generate far more policy ideas than can seriously considered by our political system. When it comes to systemic risk, we have all the ideas we need–size caps or higher capital requirements–and we have academics behind both of those. The rest is politics. What we really need is for the people with the big megaphones to be smarter about the ideas that they cover.