This week I went to the American Economic Association's annual meeting, which was held in sunny San Diego, CA. I went to quite a number of interesting sessions, mostly on behavioral economics and finance. What an exciting field!
But anyway, I also went to an interesting session called "What do economists think about major public policy issues?" There were two papers presented, both of which were extremely relevant for much of the debate going on in the econ blogosphere.
The first paper, by Roger Gordon and Gordon Dahl of UC San Diego (aside: now I want to co-author with a guy whose last name is "Noah"!), was called "Views among Economists: Professional Consensus or Point-Counterpoint?" Gordon & Dahl
surveyed analyzed a survey of 41 top economists about their views on 81 policy issues, and tried to determine A) how much disagreement there was, and B) how much disagreement was due to political ideology.
They found that top economists agree about a lot of things. For example, 100% opposed a gold standard; as panel discussant Justin Wolfers put it, economists are united against Ron Paul. Also, 84% of top economists supported cuts in Medicare benefits, even for households making less than $250,000 a year. On some other issues, opinion was all over the place.
Gordon and Dahl also found that the differences that did exist couldn't easily be tied to individual characteristics like gender, experience working in Washington, etc. A panel discussant, Monika Piazzesi, did some further statistical analysis to show that the surveyed economists didn't clump up into "liberal" and "conservative" clusters.
Conclusion: Economics, at least at the elite level, isn't divided into two warring ideological camps.
That doesn't mean there is no politicization. Justin Wolfers sat down and ranked the 41 top economists on a liberal/conservative scale according to his own intuition, and found that the economists he intuitively felt were liberal were more likely to support fiscal stimulus, and the conservatives less. He found a few other seemingly partisan differences this way, though not many. (Of course, one has to be careful with this type of analysis; if your ideas of who's "liberal" and who's "conservative" are formed by who supports stimulus and who opposes it, then of course you're going to see this type of effect!)
And of course, it's worth noting that the survey had a small sample, and included only "top" economists at major U.S. universities. There might be "long tails" of ideological bias lower down the prestige scale.
Paul Krugman, who was on the panel, suggested that politicization is mostly confined to the macro field. But even on the question of stimulus, most of the surveyed economists (80%) agreed that Obama's 2009 stimulus boosted output and employment (though fewer agreed that this boost was worth the long-term costs). So it seems that the few top economists who a few years ago were loudly saying that stimulus couldn't possibly work - Bob Lucas, Robert Barro, Gene Fama, etc. - were just a very vocal small minority.
These results surprised me. I'm so used to seeing top macroeconomists tangling with each other in the op-eds that I assumed that there was much more politicization out there than Gordon & Dahl ended up finding. And I had often heard that the appeal of certain classes of macro models - for example, RBC - came from their conservative policy implications.
So maybe I've been wrong all this time!
Or maybe there was more politicization of macro back in the 70s and 80s?
Or maybe there is still politicization, but the economics profession has just shifted decisively to the center-left? After all, as of 2012, the consensus favorite modeling approach among pure macro people seems to be New Keynesian models of the type preferred by Krugman, not RBC-type models of the type supported by Bob Lucas, Robert Barro, and other "new classical" economists back in the 1980s. It could be that nowadays most economists are - as one person on the panel put it - "market-hugging Democrats". (Or it could be that New Keynesian models simply won the war of ideas. Or both.)
I'm not sure, but Gordon & Dahl's paper is definitely making me question my beliefs...