NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Academics Envy Think Tanks

April 26, 2000

In his April 23 New York Times column, economics professor Paul Krugman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology went on a tirade against "hacks" working as "hired guns" in think tanks. In his view, such people put ideology above truth and willingly misrepresent facts to achieve their political agendas. While Krugman concedes that hacks occupy both wings of the political spectrum, his ire is directed solely at those on the right.

Professors like Krugman love to delude themselves that those in positions of influence in Washington care what they think. They even fool themselves into believing policymakers actually read the impenetrable prose they publish in justly obscure academic journals. The truth is that even academics don't read this stuff, and few even know it exists.

In all my years in government -- as staff director for a congressional committee, as a senior policy analyst at the White House and an economic adviser to the Treasury Secretary -- I have never seen a case in which policymakers got any useful advice, policy ideas or worthwhile information out of academic economists like Krugman. Even when their work has practical value, it is never timely and so laden with academic jargon, dense equations and gobbledygook that it is almost impossible to make sense of it.

The think tanks Krugman casually dismisses were largely set up to fill the gap between academia and those who actually make policy. The publications emanating from these institutions are read and often acted upon by policymakers.

I suspect that academics like Krugman put down think tanks out of envy. They know that academia is becoming more and more alienated from everything that really matters, whether in government, business or the arts. Professional academics increasingly are like cloistered monks from the Middle Ages, isolated from society. Perhaps it is just as well, since they do less harm that way.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis, April 26, 2000.


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