Why Is a Socialist Allowed to Teach Economics?

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

We don’t cover economics regularly because it is not traditionally considered science. Furthermore, the field too often generates research and commentary that employs more voodoo than a witch doctor. It is largely for these reasons that economics is often referred to as the “dismal science” and why President Harry Truman wanted to meet a one-armed economist.

Still, economics can provide powerful insights on market behavior. Indeed, economists from various ideological backgrounds have managed to reach a consensus on several major issues, and from that vantage point, we can say the field has developed something resembling scientific knowledge.

One of those insights is that people respond to incentives. If I offer a teenager $50 to mow my lawn — and an extra $25 if he trims the bushes — then I can expect to shell out $75. I just offered my little helper a handsome incentive, and there’s a very good chance he’ll respond to it. This insight on human behavior is so basic and obvious that it is listed as one of the foundations of economics in Harvard economist Greg Mankiw’s textbook Principles of Economics.

Unfortunately, socialists never learned this lesson. In a socialist economy, incentives play little (if any) role. Therefore, as University of Michigan-Flint economist Mark J. Perry wrote, “By failing to emphasize incentives, socialism is a theory inconsistent with human nature and is therefore doomed to fail.”

Yet, shockingly, socialists can regularly be found on college campuses. Kshama Sawant, an economics teacher at Seattle Central Community College, openly endorses socialism. She also is running for Seattle City Council and, with the latest election returns, claims 49.5% of the vote. With many ballots left to count, she could still win.

How on earth can somebody who rejects basic academic knowledge be so close to winning a city council seat? Even more troublingly, how can somebody with her beliefs be allowed to teach an economics course? This would be analogous to allowing an AIDS denier to teach a medical microbiology course, a 9/11 truther to teach a foreign policy course, or a creationist to teach an evolution course. (Amazingly, UMass-Amherst biologist Lynn Margulis had the dubious distinction of being both an AIDS denier and a 9/11 truther!)

Just how far out of the mainstream is Dr. Sawant? She favors collectivizing Amazon. “Collectivizing” is a nice word socialists use to mean seizing assets and turning control of operations over to the government.

If Dr. Sawant’s embrace of socialism isn’t bad enough, she also endorses a terribly destructive policy called “rent control.” This policy can take various forms, but basically, landlords are not allowed to charge market rates for apartments. That might sound like a nice thing if you’re a renter, but Dr. Mankiw — citing a 1992 paper in American Economic Reviewstates that 93% of economists reject rent control because it “reduces the quantity and quality of housing available.” University of Chicago lecturer Charles Wheelan, author of Naked Economics, agrees:

“…if you asked ten economists why there is a shortage of cabs and apartments in New York City, all ten would tell you that limitations on the number of taxi medallions and rent control are what restrict the supply of these goods and services.”

I have two questions to which I will never expect to receive a rational answer.

First, why would Seattle Central Community College allow Dr. Sawant (yes, she actually has a Ph.D. in economics) anywhere near students? And second, to the citizens of Seattle, how does one of the most educated cities in America allow themselves to get duped?