dumstrutProfessor Outis Philalithopoulos was found dead in his home three days ago; the coroner’s report cited natural causes that were left unspecified. Unfortunately, all of the professor’s academic work has disappeared; the only trace left appears to be the following letter, which he sent to an admirer shortly before his death. The understandably concerned recipient of the letter has shared its contents with Naked Capitalism, and has insisted that her identity be protected.

Dear * * *,

Reading your generous letter was an unexpectedly encouraging experience. I rarely feel that others truly understand the purport of my theories, but when I see a high school student such as yourself navigate her way through the vilifications that surrounds my work, it makes me want to redouble my efforts to explain my ideas to a larger audience.

How did you become the most courageous economics professor of our time?
Really, you are far too kind. I never thought of myself as anyone out of the ordinary while working as a young PhD on technical questions in Public Choice theory. As you probably know, Public Choice is the pathbreaking theory that demystified the decisions of politicians, showing that they act rationally in order to maximize their own economic benefits.

Soon after receiving tenure, it occurred to me that we were being profoundly inconsistent. While we had correctly criticized the previous mainstream view that politics involved benevolent efforts to serve the common good, we had failed to apply the same rigor to the community of academic economists. As a result, we were modeling both economic and political actors as self-interested utility-maximizing agents, while continuing to see economics professors as idealistic pursuers of truth. I decided to correct this oversight by developing my theory of Academic Choice, in which economists are theorized as rational agents who continually seek to maximize their future earnings potential.

The way I would describe Academic Choice theory is that it is “the sociology of economists, without romance.” Is this right? What an insightful comment. As you say, Academic Choice theory is a descriptive project, with no normative orientation. We apply a critical approach in order to counterbalance pervasive earlier notions of economists as scientific heroes struggling against popular ignorance in order to serve the common good …

Isn’t it offensive to assume that economists, for motives of personal gain, shade their theoretical allegiances in the directions preferred by powerful interest groups? How could it ever be offensive to assume that a person acts rationally in pursuit of maximizing his or her own utility? I’m afraid I don’t understand this question.

Is there a “behavioral” version of Academic Choice theory, in which the basic premises are enriched by the possibility that economists sometimes act irrationally? Great question. One of my students developed just such a theory – he postulated that economists sometimes do act benevolently, but they have access to limited information and are subject to cognitive biases …

However, while his dissertation was unquestionably a valuable contribution to the literature, I am personally convinced that the original Academic Choice theory is more empirically realistic. Studies have shown that many people do act irrationally, but not economists …

Yves Smith/Naked Capitalism