Thursday, March 12, 2009

GMU in the Marketplace of Ideas

In 2002, when I decided to pursue my Bachelor's of Science in Economics at George Mason University, my decision seemed, at least on the surface, a bit risky. Mason was (and, as far as general rankings go, still is) seen as second-to-third-tier school. As a non-local, I was paying significantly higher tuition prices than locals who were opting to go to Mason for less-than intellectual reasons. Worst of all, my grades could have gotten me into a more prestigious institution, whose degree would have given me more marketability after graduation. Yet I still chose Mason.

The "why" of my decision became abundantly clear on arrival. Mason Economics' distinct, radical, intellectual culture attracted some of the best economic faculty in the country. Still, my exposure to Mason's economics education was limited to campus, to the classroom. It was a private, hard to describe experience; it was difficult to communicate the unique (sometimes oddball) point of view of the faculty to those who had not shared the experience first hand.

This is no longer the case.

GMU Econ professors are everywhere now. Their primary claim to fame (besides the prestige of the two Nobel Laureates in the faculty), is their blogging work: theirs are some of the most popular economics blogs on the web. It has translated to a plethora of op-eds, television appearances, magazine articles, podcasts. (Their blogging, with the help of the 2006 basketball team, has resulted in positive attention for the school, too.) The brand is now known as "Masonomics." The Economist has recently taken notice of this phenominon:
AT THE Kaufmann bloggers forum Don Boudreaux, chair of the economics department at George Mason University, said he rewards and encourages blogging amongst his faculty. Perhaps that's why George Mason’s department produces some of the most popular economics blogs. Professors at other universities lamented that this is not typical. Blogging is usually considered a source of distraction that sucks up valuable research time.

Compared to other economics departments, George Mason appears to have developed a comparative advantage in blogging. Lots of top departments produce good research and competition for talent (both new professors and graduate students) is fierce. Anecdotally, it sounds as if George Mason may actually be attracting more quality students and faculty because of the higher profile it gained from blogging.

Blogging may take away from the time professors at George Mason spend doing research. But if blogging is their comparative advantage to professors at, say, Harvard, it may be the most effective means to increase the quality and reputation of the department.

It is not completely surprising that this happened at George Mason. They also may have benefited from the Flutie effect. The past success of its basketball team may have also increased the quality of the university. The advertising effect of a successful sports team brings in revenue (by galvanising alumni with deep pockets) and increases the quality of students (by encouraging more students to apply). However, the Flutie effect generally only really benefits a university if the school turns out to be of high quality but would have otherwise been unknown. Perhaps that explains why blogging may have produced a Flutie effect on the George Mason econ department. They have not completely given up on research.

Joseph Lawler, of The American Spectator, responding to the Economist article writes:
I'm almost tempted to say that I've learned more reading Marginal Revolution, Econlog, Cafe Hayek, and Overcoming Bias than I did getting a degree in economics from a top-20 university. By maintaining these blogs GMU economists have raised the level of discourse with non-economists from basically zero. The GMU economists are not the only economics bloggers, obviously, and they trade arguments and observations with economists from other schools. Before blogs, this running debate and commentary simply was not available to anyone who didn't read the very narrow and officiated arguments in scholarly journals.

An economic historian once mentioned to me that half of all published economic research articles go uncited (except for by their own authors). Which do you think is more valuable: a medium that's one-half totally ignored, or a medium that attracts millions to read and comment every single day? I'll leave you to answer that one but as for me I wouldn't want to be limited to Tyler Cowen's thoughts just a few times a year.

Yet competing economics departments have criticized the new-found prominence of Masonomics. GMU Econ professor Peter Boettke writes:
There is a growing impression that all we do at GMU is public intellectual work in economics (blogs, trade books, op-eds, magazine articles, podcasts, TV shows, etc.) and that little scientific work goes on (journal articles and university press books, presentations at research seminiars and scientific conferences, etc.). A recent graduate from a rather low ranked PhD program actually told one of our students at the AEA meetings that 'Nobody at GMU is a serious economist, they are all philosophers who don't know technical economics.' Such ignorance could be dismissed if it was isolated, but this charge is often repeated by faculty members at would-be rival graduate programs.
Professor Boettke goes on to refute those claims, but that's beside the point. The only way bad economic ideas are defeated is through discourse in the marketplace of ideas. Mason is now a prominent voice for capitalism, one that was rarely heard in the past. The intellectual heft of Masonomics must be defended, yes. But, given the current political climate, Mason's ideological prominence is just as important.