Michael S. Gordon for The Boston Globe
Conservatives have the Heritage Foundation as their beacon for economic policy. Liberals seek inspiration from the Brookings Institution. So where can socialists turn?
The economics department of University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The department, known for its Marxist traditions and radical economics, has been thrust front and center in the presidential campaign since Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-professed democratic socialist, cited a UMass analysis of his domestic policies from universal health care to free college.
The analysis, by UMass economics professor Gerald Friedman, found that under Sanders policies, the US economy would grow at an annual rate of 5.3 percent, more than double the 2015 pace. The study ricocheted around the country last month, with no less than four top economic advisers to Democratic presidents blasting Friedman’s results as “extreme,” and New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman indirectly questioning his credentials and motives.
Calls from Fox News, CNN, and other media seeking interviews followed.
“I’m not used to this kind of thing,” said a disheveled-looking Friedman last week between an appointment with a student and a lecture in front of an undergraduate macroeconomics class. “My life has been consumed by this.”
But this is an election year for outsider politicians such as Sanders, who is drawing crowds by the thousands and threatening Hillary Clinton’s march to the Democratic nomination. It may also be a year for outsider economists.
UMass is a home for such outsiders, standing out in a field where “conservative economist” is viewed as redundant. Its economics faculty like to describe their department as “heterodox,” but Robert Pollin admitted that’s just a euphemism. They’re lefties.
The department, he said, is “more committed to an egalitarian view.”
UMass took its antiestablishment turn in the 1970s when it hired a group of five left-leaning economists, including some who had been denied tenure at Harvard in that school’s effort to push out its radical faculty. Samuel Bowles, a Marxist, was one in that wave.
Over the years, UMass has welcomed scholars squeezed out of more conservative economics departments and nurtured professors who tackle overlooked topics, such as a $15 minimum wage, taxes on stock and bond sales, and the economic pitfalls of sexual orientation discrimination
The work of professor Lee Badgett, for example, showed that allowing same-sex couples to marry would reduce the costs of public assistance programs, since couples would bear the financial responsibility of taking care of each other, and increase revenue from spending on weddings. It was cited in gay marriage cases to show the financial benefits to state and federal governments.
“It’s been a great home,” said Badgett, who came to UMass from the University of Maryland in 1997. “We provide a niche. There are a lot of economics departments around the country. You’ve got to stand out.”
In UMass’ program, students take traditional classes such as macroeconomics and monetary policy, but also get a good dose of Marxist and feminist economic theories. Professors stuff their office bookshelves with traditional thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes, along with works about revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky and economic studies of American slavery.
A graduate student who debunked a well-regarded and widely accepted paper on the benefits of austerity policies three years ago is still treated like a star. The study, by Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, argued that countries suffer low growth when government debt exceeds 90 percent of total economic output. It was widely used by policy makers who favored austerity, instead of stimulus measures to combat the financial crisis.
But Thomas Herndon, while trying to complete a course assignment, found that the paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” omitted economic growth rates for a handful of countries, and made other mistakes. Reinhart and Rogoff have said the miscalculations didn’t alter their main findings.
Another UMass economics professor, Arindrajit Dube, later disputed the thesis of Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper. He found that rising debt doesn’t slow economies, but rather that slow economic growth leads to rising debt. In other words, budget cuts and other austerity policies aimed at cutting national debts ultimately lowered growth and tax collections, and led to more government borrowing.
At UMass, Herndon said, economists are more interested in questions about economic justice than “the prestige of where they’re published.”
Challenges to conventional thinking have formed the cornerstone of the UMass economics department, said Michael Ash, the chairman of the department. “We take that heterodoxy seriously,” Ash said. “It’s been contained elsewhere.”
Questioning the establishment and conventional thinking has helped attract students to the department, Ash said. The number of economics majors at UMass has crossed 1,000, from about 600 just three years ago, he said.
For Friedman, the attacks on his analysis of Sanders’ economic platform have been mitigated by support from his UMass colleagues, who have offered their own criticisms to suggest where the analysis can be strengthened.
“This is the most interesting economics department in the world,” Friedman said.
He acknowledged that he is still polishing his study of Sanders’ policies and testing his findings under more scenarios. But he still believes that if Sanders’ policies are enacted in full, they could expand the economy faster than current policies. Sanders’ proposals have also sparked more discussion on important social issues, such as health care and the minimum wage, he said.
“Apart from the name calling,” Friedman said. “We’ve had a great debate.”
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