Fear the wealthy: higher ed edition. [updated]

Is there a more specious argument of class warfare than this by Nancy Folbre, a UMass professor writing on the New York Times Economix blog? Her concern is that private money flowing into professorship endowments is allowing rich ideologues to dictate higher education curriculum to its detriment:

In the marketplace of ideas, people with a lot of money can buy whatever they want, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, they also have the power to influence other people’s ideas in ways that violate principles of justice, undermine democracy and distort the truth.

It’s difficult to agree on a bright line dividing what we should allow from what we should prohibit. But we can describe a spectrum of efforts to influence ideas that range from the innocent to the corrupt.

Political advertising that honestly states a point of view clearly represents a form of free speech. At the opposite extreme lie criminal activities such as bribing jurors or buying inside information to profiteer in stocks.

The messy stuff lies in between. Efforts to negotiate new legal and moral boundaries are sometimes described as normative meddling rather than objective science. Edward Glaeser seemed to take this position in his post last week on Economix.

But surely efforts to decide what money should be allowed to buy could be usefully informed by social science research. What happens when wealth and income, concentrated in a few hands, can purchase influence without restraint?

[emphasis mine]

The answer Nancy seems to be driving at is “nothing good.” I would suggest that the more likely answer is simply “nothing.”

The argument that the rich are polluting democracy is a timeless one, sadly one-sided, and poorly informed. The typical narrative hails from the left, which seems oddly fixated on drawing ideological lines along the income distribution, and generally indicts conservatives who are spending their money to try to influence ideas — especially the Koch family. It’s tiresome. Even if I concede the statement above that pecuniary influence “has the power” to “violate principles of justice, undermine democracy and distort the truth,” the point of concern is whether it actually has the tendency to do so.

Folbre bemoans the fact that rich people with ideas are sending their dollars to universities. You can go to the post to see some of the research she cites to bolster her concern. Indeed, I think it suggests that there is utility in rich people spending money to promulgate their beliefs: it tends to have influence. Spending money in defense of your ideas tends to affect public opinion. So the rich are not spending their money irrationally. Is it unjust? Is it distorting democracy? It seems unlikely.

Folbre seems to rest her argument on a critical assumption that I simply cannot sign on to: that the rich are overwhelmingly conservative (or at least are overwhelmingly ideologically one-sided). To explore this, let’s take a look at a couple of charts.


The Pew Research Center for People and the Press recently assembled a new report on the ideological composition of America. Here are two solidly liberal and solidly conservative groups by income level. The lesson here is that income is not particularly well correlated with ideology. In any event, not in a way that should signal alarm at the rich spending on their ideological agendas. In our own government, millionaires abound in both parties.

Folbre is upset that the Peter G. Peterson and Koch foundations are spending money endowing professorships, but hardly give attention to the spending by wealthy liberals such as George Soros. Rich people send their money to both the Heritage Foundation and Center for American Progress. Looking at the world around us, the whole narrative that the rich are a conservative force against democratic expression seems ludicrous. All mainstream ideologies seem very well-funded. And assuming that both conservative and liberal economists can be accomplished and valuable contributors to their field (something I would hope even Fulbre could acknowledge), it seems particularly benign that students might be getting broader exposure than they otherwise might have because some foundations are endowing professorships.

Notice that I am not saying categorically that there is no problem here. Just because the wealthy tend to be ideologically diverse, that doesn’t mean that wealthy donations to universities are representative of that distribution. My understanding is that conservatives have historically sent more money to think tanks and other non-academic institutions, while universities have typically been generally left-leaning bastions. This may still be the trend, or it may be that wealthy conservatives are now trying to reverse that narrative and are outspending liberals in ways people are starting to notice. In any of these cases, it’s still not clear what the tangible effects of this investment would be on educational outcomes. I would love to see real research that addresses this question, but citing tangential and not entirely germane research makes for shaky ground to build an argument upon.

Fulbre’s own University of Massachusetts at Amherst is facing an 8.7% budget cut this year. My own university, UNC Chapel Hill, is facing potentially twice that amount. That Fulbre attacks what may be valuable private contributions at a time when public money for universities is conspicuously absent seems more like a willingness to shoot her profession in the foot for the sake of promulgating an already problematic narrative. Let’s explore the impact of THAT on our students.


Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog for free markets and social justice, weighs in as well. Much too much to summarize here, but very comprehensive.


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