It's a Friday night in January, and I am searching for a free drink among 9,000 economists. Every year a sizable portion of the nation's economists descend on some lucky city for the Allied Social Science Associations Annual Meeting, the economics field's largest gathering, a kind of carnival of suits and supply curves. Most academic disciplines have a similar annual convention, but no other can boast the same influence on American politics and policy--after all, Presidents don't appoint a council of anthropological advisers. It doesn't take long for mainstream academic thinking to become the foundation for the government's macroeconomic policy. In 1968 Milton Friedman, then president of the American Economics Association (AEA), devoted his presidential address to arguing against Keynesian meddling in the economy and for a monetary policy focused on restraining inflation. A decade later, his prescriptions would be largely adopted. In 2005 onetime Reagan adviser Martin Feldstein called for Social Security privatization just as Republicans in Washington were mobilizing (unsuccessfully) toward the same end.
This year's conference attendees are packed into the mammoth glass-and-brick Chicago Hyatt. On the second evening, I come across two receptions facing off across a basement hallway. If you wanted to get a sense of the status hierarchies of the profession, this was a perfect tableau. On one side, a reception in honor of the impending rebroadcast of the late Milton Friedman's famed miniseries Free to Choose, a wildly successful bit of laissez-faire propaganda now set to reach a new generation of unsuspecting blue-state audiences. The room is packed and festive, with several Nobel laureates milling about, chicken satay skewers available for noshing and an open bar. (A man behind me in line complains of the free drinks that "Milton wouldn't approve! Because we're not getting the true price of the drinks.") Across the hall, a reception hosted by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a left-liberal Washington think tank that advocates policies--higher minimum wage, easier paths to unionization, social insurance--that are in almost every detail the opposite of everything that Friedman stood for. In that room, perhaps thirty people gather, picking at the cheese cubes and shelling out $6 a drink at the cash bar. The EPI's Max Sawicky, an imposing presence with a long gray ponytail and growling voice, tells me the turnout is better than usual.
After grabbing a free drink in the Friedman reception, I strike up a conversation with economist Michael Perelman in the hallway. Balding, with long gray hair, he has the intense, unblinking mien of a self-published science fiction writer, or a former grad student of Timothy Leary's. Perelman, who is there for the EPI reception, works at the margins of the discipline; he is one of a few hundred self-described "heterodox" economists at the conference. His last book, Railroading Economics, was about the creation of the "free market mythology," and his next book is titled The Confiscation of American Prosperity: From Right-Wing Extremism and Economic Ideology to the Next Great Depression. I ask him about how he relates to the so-called mainstream of his profession. "It's a mafia," he says quietly, his eyes roving over to the suits spilling out of the Freedom to Choose room.
Mafia is probably a tad hyperbolic, but there is undoubtedly something of a code of omertà within the discipline. Just ask Alan Blinder and David Card. Blinder, a renowned Princeton economist and former Clinton economic adviser, has long been a zealous advocate of trade liberalization. But this past March, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article on Blinder's concerns about the massive dislocations that the current trade regime and outsourcing trends might bring for American workers. He suddenly found himself under fire from fellow economists for stepping out of line. Card, a highly esteemed economist at the University of California, Berkeley, caught flak for his heresy not on trade but on the minimum wage. In 1994 he conducted a study to see whether an increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey had the negative effect on employment that basic neoclassical theory would predict. He found it didn't. In fact, his regression analysis showed that, controlling for other factors, New Jersey gained fast-food jobs after increasing its minimum wage, compared with Pennsylvania, which hadn't raised wages. The paper attracted a tremendous amount of attention and criticism, and Card himself largely abandoned working on the minimum wage. In a 2006 interview, he explained his decision to leave the topic behind this way: "I've subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons. First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole."
As Card's and Blinder's experiences show, the "mafia" still flexes its muscles, but there are also signs that its hold on power is slipping. While the discipline remains dominated by a "neoclassical" consensus that is generally pro-market and suspicious of government intervention, an explosion of new research programs and methods have provided strong evidence that many of the pillars of that consensus rest on a foundation of sand. In fact, just before the reception, AEA president George Akerlof, a Nobel laureate as respected in the profession as they come, gave what was in many senses a radical address, attacking some of the discipline's most basic assumptions about what drives human economic behavior. (Three men standing near me in the Friedman reception had referred to it as "crap.")
For this reason, I had expected the mood at the EPI reception to be upbeat. But the crowd was desultory. Things in the field were opening up, Sawicky conceded, "but it doesn't matter much, if it's still dominated by a bunch of reactionaries." In other words, while the ideas of Sawicky and his heterodox colleagues may have moved into the mainstream, they themselves have not.
So extreme is the marginalization of heterodox economists, most people don't even know they exist. Despite the fact that as many as one in five professional economists belongs to a professional association that might be described as heterodox, the phrase "heterodox economics" has appeared exactly once in the New York Times since 1981. During that same period "intelligent design," a theory endorsed by not a single published, peer-reviewed piece of scholarship, has appeared 367 times.
It doesn't take much to call forth an impressive amount of bile from heterodox economists toward their mainstream brethren. John Tiemstra, president of the Association for Social Economics and a professor at Calvin College, summed up his feelings this way: "I go to the cocktail parties for my old schools, MIT and Oberlin, and people are all excited about Freakonomics. I kind of wince and go off to another corner or have another drink." After the EPI gathering, Peter Dorman, an economist at Evergreen State College with a gentle, bearded air, related an e-mail exchange he once had with Hal Varian, a well-respected Berkeley economist who's moderately liberal but firmly committed to the neoclassical approach. Varian wrote to Dorman that there was no point in presenting "both sides" of the debate about trade, because one side--the view that benefits from unfettered trade are absolute--was like astronomy, while any other view was like astrology. "So I told him I didn't buy the traditional trade theory," Dorman said. "'Was I an astrologer?' And he said yes!"