Scenes from the Front Lines: PC at Chicago

Chicago 3 copyI’ve received a remarkable and detailed report from the front lines from an undergraduate student about how the culture of political correctness infects even the University of Chicago, which I had hitherto thought to have resisted much of this.  I’ve redacted the name of the student, and edited down the length:


The lack of economics literacy on campus is stunning, that too at a university with the rich tradition of UChicago in the field. I would posit empirically that more undergrads have a working understanding of Durkheim on religion than they have of the production possibilities frontier. And speaking from personal experience, the latter is WAY easier to understand.

Insofar as students do care about economics, they care about inequality. Not about the very real and present problem of inequality between the rich west and poor third world that freer trade and more open borders has only begun to fix. But about the kind of trumped up (and increasingly based on flawed data) view of inequality arising from “greedy capitalists” “hoarding” all of the wealth that is espoused by Thomas Piketty and his acolytes and sycophants.

The thought experiment I always want to pose for these so-called crusaders for social justice is (and this is not an uncommon scenario) – Based on my job and business and the income that I earn from both, at least in terms of income, I am the 1% and probably the 0.1% (this if you exclude working seniors who have placed into jobs but are waiting to graduate) within the micro-society that is the University of Chicago’s undergraduate population. Is this inequality because I’ve somehow managed to “hoard” much of the income available to UChicago students. Or is it because I choose to spend a significant portion of my time working instead of pursuing other opportunities, such as (and this is ironically illustrative on so many levels) the three hours I spent last Wednesday night working on a project for a client even as several of my friends listened to the Reverend Jesse Jackson give a speech. Is this inequality because I’ve somehow managed to “hoard” most of the income at the expense of those working as TAs or on-campus for minimum wage. Or is it because I took a financial risk to start my own business instead?

But of course even more alarming than the economics is what I like to call “Debate is Over” syndrome. The average UChicago student is so convinced of his or her worldview, so set in his or her ways, that anyone who has the temerity to disagree with a progressive platitude regardless of the merit of the disagreement is immediately branded with some sort of antagonistic label.

I once made the argument that the gender wage gap isn’t really 77 cents on the dollar and largely doesn’t exist once you control for things like hours worked, profession (i.e. Simpson’s Paradox), education, and the fact that high wages are a lagging indicator and the nature of high wage workers of each gender is heavily contingent on working conditions of the past, not of present day. I also made clear in that same argument that those “controls” reveal very real challenges in this country’s gender roles (i.e. we should have more female computer scientists and we should look to share the burden of housework and child rearing as a society and allow women to work more). And that given that the wage gap largely lies in these “controls” simply going after employers and corporations simple because they are a politically convenient target might not be the most effective solution. And I was promptly branded by several feminists as a misogynist and sexist.

I also made the argument that the divestment movement (aiming to divest UChicago’s endowment of any equity holdings tied to fossil fuel production), and more broadly the simplistic goal of banning or sharply reducing fossil fuel production immediately (as many of the environmentalists on campus believe should happen) should not be cut and dry. I pointed out that rising energy costs impact poor Americans most significantly, and that eliminating fossil fuel production and replacing it (not that it’s even possible) with renewable energy production would be very bad for poor and uneducated Americans and cause increasing inequality (because energy is one of few sources for high paying jobs for uneducated workers, who would presumably drop to substantially lower wages sans energy). In response I was told that I “hate the Earth”, “don’t care about the poor”, and was called a classist.

I made the argument that the actual distributive effect of affirmative action and racial preferences is to penalize Asian-American students on behalf of white ones, not to actually preserve access for African Americans and Latinos (look at the Asian-White ratios [ 40 - 40] at Caltech and UC Berkley which are race blind vs. that at the Ivy League and other schools with racial preferences [20-60]). I also made the point that this is probably unfair to Asian-Americans, and that a superior solution would probably be explicit carve-outs for African American and Hispanic American students instead of nebulous affirmative action and racial preferences. In response I was branded as “racist,” “black-hating,” and told to “check my white privilege”

Of all the things ironic about “Debate is Over” syndrome, an Indian-American (i.e. Asian) male being told to check his “white privilege” might take the cake.

Now the one caveat I will state is that such behavior is not unanimous. Economics majors tend to be slightly less blatantly ideological, and there are certainly independents and centrists. Our Institute of Politics is good at at least paying lip service to a balanced discourse on both sides of the aisle. And indeed there are many things that I love about life here at the Unversity of Chicago, most things in fact.

But current conditions on the ground leave me worried about the future of academic freedom.

Me, too.