7/12/08

Times: Bruce Lincoln et. al. say NIMBY to University of Chicago Center for Milton Friedman Economics

Apparently, my old colleague Bruce Lincoln is leading the opposition at the University of Chicago to a newly established Center for Milton Friedman Style Economics.

The Chi Trib quoted Lincoln last month, '"It is a right-wing think tank being put in place," said Bruce Lincoln, a professor of the history of religions and one of the faculty members who met with the administration Tuesday. "The long-term consequences will be very severe. This will be a flagship entity and it will attract a lot of money and a lot of attention, and I think work at the university and the university's reputation will take a serious rightward turn to the detriment of all."'

Now the Times
(in a notably weak and poorly researched article) has him saying less, that is, "As an opponent of the entire institute, rather than simply its name, Mr. Lincoln characterized himself on the extreme end of the opposition. He said he would like to see a research center “much more committed to free inquiry and a larger debate, and not just grinding the same ax sharper and sharper.”"

What makes the Times article so poor is its general lack of specificity and legwork, especially its failure to characterize Lincoln's politics. He has been a keen Marxist critical thinker throughout his career. His opposition to this venture framed by such a characterization loses much of its luster.

Background: Bruce and I started as colleagues at the University of Minnesota in the same year, 1976. We also left MN about the same time with Bruce returning to his alma mater in 1994 and me returning home to the East in 1995.

When we were colleagues I always tried to keep up with Bruce's scholarly writings, which jumped hither and yon across the eons, continents and cultures. Bruce indeed describes himself as a "short attention span" scholar. Nevertheless his work was unified by his unyielding reductionism of all religion and culture to the brute struggles for economic and social domination by the elites over the masses.

Anecdote: Once in a coffee shop in Dinkytown adjacent to the UM campus I described to Bruce some of the issues that I was working on in rabbinic literature and culture. I ticked off the modes of thought in Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud and asked him how he would characterize them. His answer without a tinge of irony was that all that work and writing seemed to him to be a massive publicly supported employment program for the rabbis. That about sums Bruce up.

Now why does a smart man have such a knee jerk reaction to the plans for an Economics Center at the U of Chi? Beats me. What puzzles me most are the vague and specious claims that he is leading the faculty to raise in their battle. Let's look at them as spelled out in the text itself, the recent protest letter of the faculty to the administration.

1. The faculty say in the letter that they are, "Disturbed by the ideological and disciplinary preference implied by the University's massive support for the economic and political doctrines that have extended from Friedman's work." Is this code for saying that they want the new money to go to their work? The new support for this Center is an expansion of the pie, not a diversion of existing funds. They must know this. The protesting professors can continue to do their Marxist critiques unabated...

2. They say in the letter, "We are concerned, additionally, that this endeavor could reinforce among the public a perception that the University’s faculty lacks intellectual and ideological diversity." Really, have we come so far from 1968 to invoke, "We are concerned" as our protest mantra? As to the substance, second verse, same as the first, with the new Center they all get to keep their jobs, the UCHI adds new diversity and new positions.

3. Then the letter gets really weird: "The effects of the neoliberal global order that has been put in place in recent decades, strongly buttressed by the Chicago School of Economics, have by no means been unequivocally positive." Oy vey. The notion that a school of thought has much impact at all on the global economy is laughable. Even if we would stipulate that the MF school was so profoundly powerful worldwide, many other factors come into play to cause global suffering. And by the way many third world countries have made significant gains in standard of living and have diminished the sufferings of their indigineous populations over the past 30 years. If you attribute the blame, you must also grant the fame.

4. The next point in the letter is critical of the mission statement of the proposed Center, but for the wrong reasons. Lincoln et al don't like this verbiage of the founding charge to the Center: "As Friedman and others continually demonstrated, design of public policy without regard to market alternatives has adverse social consequences." Well neither do I. But my objection is that it is a formless statement stating a nebulous goal, not that it is a threat to "interdisciplinarity, methodological diversity, and to discussion across political lines" as Bruce would have it. Come to think of it those three goals are bereft of any content or significance -- addressing no content or issue of significance, or, all field and no hit, as we say in the ballpark.

5. The money shot, as they say at the movies, comes next: "Still others believe that, given the influx of private contributions to the MFI, the University now has the opportunity to provide roughly equivalent resources for critical scholarly work that seeks out alternatives to recent economic, social, and political developments." As I read it, that's an unrepentant demand for equal funding for existing faculty who are already being paid and funded. Yikes, talk of chutzpah.

6. Anyhow these radicals and protesters finally get to the action points: "Virtually all of us are distressed by the position the University has taken and by the process through which decisions have been made. We would ask to meet with you at your earliest convenience." They are "distressed" and want a meeting!

OHMYGOD not a meeting!

To recap, this is a paradigmatic exemplar of bad negotiating. $200 million in new funds to support economics research will enhance the reputation and stature of the school, at no expense to the sitting professoriate. The fear that UCHI will become another Stanford, that's just silly rhetoric.

Finally, the notion that the protest letter raises to begin with, that there is something wrong with giving this venture a, "prime real estate location on campus" -- that smacks of the coarsest of all objections to progress that our society tolerates -- NIMBY -- not in my backyard!

Finally, finally, I gotta come clean here with full disclosure.

I am an Obama man. OK. Barack is not my perfect ideal messianic figure. He is the least bad real choice. And Barack is heavily into the Friedman school of economics, perhaps because of his connections to the UCHI as a faculty member over the years.

Facts worth noting: Milton Friedman's son David has endorsed Barack! Austan Goolsbee and Cass Sunstein of the UCHI business school are key advisers to the man and have helped the campaign develop an economic platform that is "orthogonal to the traditional liberal-conservative axis" and called by some "left-libertarianism."

So my point here, and I do have a point, Bruce et al, back off and give it a rest. We need to get less bad politicians into office. Let them expand the pie at your school and you all please keep up the good work.

And to Bruce specifically, get a longer attention span and stay on a subject long enough to become a world's expert in some area. You are good enough, smart enough and doggone it -- it doesn't matter if people like you.

1 comment:

John D. Enright said...

You said "Barack is not my perfect ideal messianic figure. He is the least bad real choice." That, Rabbi, is a really sad state of affairs, don't you agree?