Elinor Ostrom and the Poverty of Economics

By Roosevelt Institute |

sexism-150In our brand-new ‘Womenomics’ series, highlighting the role of women in the economy and financial reform, Roosevelt Institute Braintruster Arjun Jayadev shows how the reaction to Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize illuminates a devaluing of women and the social sciences in the econ field, resulting in a troubling poverty of imagination.

As many of you have now heard,  Elinor Ostrom is the co-recipient, with Oliver Williamson, of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Professor Ostrom is a political scientist of great distinction, and won the award for a lifetime of work analyzing economic governance of common pool resources (for a lay person’s breakdown, see Info on Ostrom’s Work).

When I read about it on Monday morning, I was thrilled by the choice, realizing that it was a wise decision and rewarded a truly creative and careful person who eschewed cleverness and the comforts of high theory in order to understand how the world really worked. As a result, her contributions to theory have a firm tethering to the real world. It was not until later that evening that I remembered that she was the first woman to win the prize as well (I should note parenthetically, that this fact is a disgrace and there have certainly been very deserving women economists in the past who were not adequately honored).

But two facts were the major talking points among the economic fraternity (and I use that word deliberately) on the blogosphere: Ostrom is  1) a political scientist and 2) a woman. It was mildly discomfiting to me when Paul Krugman noted that he had not known of her work (although to his credit, he also mentioned that he looked up her work and immediately saw how deserving it was). It got worse and a bit embarrassing when Steven Levitt noted that he too did not know who she was but thought that “the economics profession is going to hate the prize going to Ostrom even more than the Republicans hated the Peace Prize going to Obama”.

Unfortunately, as I found out Levitt was right. Nowhere was this more evident than when I went to the Economics Job Rumors website. The site is frequented by economics graduate students who are on the academic job market, and as such is a reasonable barometer of the ways in which such students in the field are thinking. What I found was really disturbing. There were over 200 responses to a thread called “NOBEL BULLSHIT” in which the undisguised ignorance, tribalism and vicious misogyny of the graduate student pool were starkly evident. Here are a choice few comments which are, I hate to say, not unrepresentative of most of the discussion there.

“This is the problem with Affirmative Action: last time a woman tried to go to the moon, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after the launch. Now this is the end of Economics.”

“Economics is superior. Don’t let political science conteminate (sic) us”

“she’s not top 5% on ideas on any ranking!!”

“susan athey or nancy stokey if you want a woman. This girl seems to be a political scientist. I don’t think she has published original research in any major economics journal”

This is the average opinion among the pool of people in their late twenties and early thirties who are going to be the teachers of economics and the leaders of thinking about economics and society in the future. It is enough to make you want to quit the discipline in disgust. All right, yes, anonymous posts bring out the worst in people, but the absolute nastiness of these responses suggest a visceral set of reactions which lays bare some of the culture of economics as a discipline. These include a thoroughgoing disregard for other disciplines (even those we take our ideas from), an inherent inability to respect ideas which do not conform to the strictures of what is acceptable knowledge (top-tier peer reviewed journal articles) and a deep-seated sexism which allows a young brash student to call the 76 year old past president of the American Political Science Association ‘this girl’.

Someone might say, ‘let not the sins of the father be visited upon the son’ and that the blame should be laid on the current teachers of economics who foster this culture. I would not disagree with that, but then how can one demand accountability? I consider myself part of this generation of economists (I got my PhD in 2005). I also know that in many universities (not the one I graduated from), cultural pressures are enormous and the stakes for personal and professional advancement are very high. But if in being starkly conformist –which would be a gentle way of putting it– my generation is not only missing a whole set of important ideas, but is adamantly closed to them, much more is lost than gained.

Scientific and ethical progress demand that this culture is changed. I don’t have any idea how to do this, but I suspect that this Nobel will nudge the field away from its poverty of imagination (I hasten to add that the best economists already long since moved on). If one is to hopeful then, perhaps this prize will mark the beginning to a different future for economics. One that will be more robust and inquisitive, that will value genuine ideas and creative thinking which illuminates the real world, and that will not instinctively devalue women. In that hope, three cheers for Elinor Ostrom!

Arjun Jayadev is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a visiting research fellow at the Columbia University Committee on Global Thought.

The Roosevelt Institute brings together thousands of thinkers and doers—from emerging leaders in every state to Nobel laureate economists. We reimagine the rules that guide our social and economic realities. Follow us on Twitter @rooseveltinst and like us on Facebook.