Austrians in Vegas

Peter Wood

I’m a newly minted member of APEE.  That’s the Association of Private Enterprise Education, a group made up largely of free-market oriented economics professors.  

I rather suspect I am the only member whose academic credential is a Ph.D. in social anthropology.  I joined APEE to attend its annual convention, held this year (and most years) in Las Vegas.  And I stood out like a walnut in a game of marbles.   Economists, at least APEE-style economists, speak a language of efficiency.   The goal is to figure out how to conjure human behavior from a parsimonious set of premises.  If all goes well, the marbles roll smoothly.  Anthropologists, by contrast, spend their time examining the rough texture of human affairs, delighted if a pattern emerges from the crisscross purposes of culture, but never expecting it. 

At one of the dinners that dotted the convention I sat down among strangers, one of whom looked me over and said, “You aren’t an economist, are you?”    He had me, but now I wonder:  how do the members of the tribe of economists recognize one another?   I began to think there is a smartly pressed, efficient, and lean look to economists even when they dress casually or tend to Falstaffian proportions. 

Despite feeling a bit out of place, I found much to enjoy at the conference.   John Stossel of ABC News received APEE’s Thomas Jefferson Award and gave a witty account of his rise from a local consumer affairs reporter to network television’s most prominent libertarian.  Robert Balling, former director of the U.S. Office of Climatology and professor of geography at Arizona State gave a plenary talk that focused on the tight correlation between solar activity and global temperatures.   Balling, typically billed as a “global warming skeptic” said he was used to hostile audiences, but APEE provided him a respite.  APEErs as a whole have little use for the Al Gore version of climatology, and Balling provided the science to buttress the economics.

At the opening reception I met a bright young man, an undergraduate student from Hillsdale College, Gennady Stolyarov, who was there to receive an award for a paper he had written on “Ethic Ideas and Consequences.”   Gennady turned out to be a sparkplug of the convention, asking slightly impertinent but interesting questions in nearly every session.  He also gave me a useful synopsis of the various APEE clans:  the Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand), the Austrians (followers of Ludwig von Mieses and F.A. Hayek),  the straight-out libertarians,  the reconcilers of free market economists with Catholic social teaching, etc.  If there was friction among these sub-groups, I didn’t discern it.  Rather, they tended to hive off among the 70-some different sessions, from “Issues in International Factor Mobility,” to “Applied Austrian Economics,” “Ayn Rand’s Capitalism,” and “Academic Networking for Private Enterprise.”

My own approach to the sessions was hit or miss.  In a session on “Incentives Matter in Economic Education,” Stephen Haessler presented a clever paper analyzing how advanced placement high school teachers responded to monetary rewards for improved teaching.  In fact, in the districts that participated in the program, the teachers improved at a rate greater than in the districts without the incentives.  It was a neat piece of empirical research. 

Prompted by what I have come to see as the Next Big Thing in campus ideology, I attended a session on “Economic and Environmental Sustainability.”  All the papers seemed on point, but I was especially taken with Roy Cordato’s “Sustainable Growth: Principles and Practices,” in which he diagnosed the incoherency of the root idea.   Still, there was something missing in this section, as though the participants were content to satisfy themselves that the sustainability ideology was a tissue of misconceptions and that was enough.

At least to me as an outsider, the participants in the APEE conference seemed quite frequently ready to put paid to ideas they found fallacious—simply by pronouncing a logical refutation.  I tried without success to detect a spirit of combativeness that would carry the fight further.  When I pointed out that Arizona State University had established a degree program in Sustainability and had appointed several economists to its faculty, an economist complacently replied, “But they aren’t in the Economics Department.” 

That was a revelatory moment.  I suppose all academics perform with a particular peer group in mind:  a body of experts whose good opinion matters more than the views of other scholars and intellectuals.  APEErs seemed to draw that circle fairly tightly.  In looking for the point where the ideas reached further into application, I made a point to attend one of the last sessions, “Ideas into Action:  Strategic Challenges Facing Think Tanks and Research Organizations.”   Unfortunately, two of the speakers canceled, but Christopher Hixon from George Mason, Roger Ream from the Fund for American Studies, and Maureen Ohlhausen from the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning did offer some solid counsel on how to advance in public policy debates.  Best idea:  submit public interest comments in response to regulatory announcements in the Federal Register. 

So why did I join APEE and brave the hazards of Las Vegas for this conference?  In large part it was to look for and connect with faculty members who might be good recruits to the National Association of Scholars and who might be induced to start new academic programs of the kind our organization promotes.  I had several good conversations with scholars who expressed their bafflement that the American public goes on, year after year, paying high prices to colleges that have eviscerated the quality of their “product.”  The consensus view was that sooner or later the educational bubble will burst, and students will flock to lower priced, high-quality distance education programs.   That may be right, but it seemed odd that so few of the participants seemed drawn to the effort to repair higher education, instead of just waiting for the cycle of “creative destruction” to take its course. 

The conference was held in Harrah’s Hotel, and the path to and from the conference rooms took guests strategically through the casino.  The sight of people mesmerized in front of slot machines or throwing away their money on a craps table induces a degree of nausea in me.  Why, oh why, I wondered, did APEE plant its convention in Las Vegas?  It was not as if the participants were in any significant numbers cutting class to try their luck at the roulette wheel.  The answer became clear from jokes and stray comments.  The APEErs tend to regard gambling as a pastime for suckers.  Their libertarian principles hold that such activities should be legal, but their commonsense tells them to abstain.   Towards the end of the conference, one of the APEE officials pointed out that ever since they had moved the conference to Law Vegas, attendance had grown and grown.  Now there’s a walnut for an anthropologist to crack.  

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