Are any occupations too right-wing?

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether there are too many left-wing academics, and whether this is a problem, potentially leading to groupthink in research and a skewed worldview presented to students. Some say the same about the tendency of school teachers to skew left, and whether this compromises their ability to “help our students appreciate other viewpoints”. Similar arguments have been made with respect to the domination of the arts by the left, most robustly pursued in a recent working paper by Siobhan McAndrew, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, which finds that cultural workers are the most left-wing of any industry, suggesting a worrying “divergence in worldviews between those tasked with representing the nation to itself and those who inhabit it”.

Which got me thinking – is this a distinctive issue for the left, or are there any occupations that we might worry are too right-wing? Fortunately McAndrew and her colleagues’ analysis compares the political views of a range of industries, producing the chart below, ranking them from most to least right wing.

image(blue dots present the unadjusted scores; orange dots control for socio-demographic backgrounds)

On the face of it, there does seem to be a bit of a discrepancy between the sorts of jobs that skew left and those favoured by the right. Relatively few right-wing jobs have the sort of influence over public values and discourse that education and the arts do, where political bias and influence is particularly concerning. Right-wing farmers can’t grow right-wing carrots. Right-wing miners don’t produce different commodities.

There are a couple of general problems that could result from an industry being dominated by one side of the political spectrum. First, a lack of exposure to an industry could limit understanding of it. Thus, if there are no left-wing farmers, it makes it less likely people on the left properly understand farmers, and makes it harder for the left to develop effective agricultural policy. But then again, it isn’t necessary to be a farmer to understand agriculture, and even if it were all it would mean is that there ought to be a reasonable number of left-wing farmers, certainly not an equal number.

A second potential problem is that all industries interact with the political sphere at some point, and ideological bias may produce negative outcomes from these encounters. Thus, for example, it might be that farmers’ right-wing tendencies led them to underestimate the danger to their industry from Brexit. But, of course, this cuts both ways – it might be seen as equally problematic that the medical profession’s left-wing beliefs encourages them to resist market reforms in the NHS.

The one ‘right-wing’ industry that stands out to me is finance. Its centrality to the economy gives it outsized political significance. The finance sector directly constrains governments by setting the terms on which it lends to them. Moreover, its confidence in the government’s economic plans can be somewhat self-fulfilling: if bankers don’t believe in the government, they are less likely to invest, damaging the economy. The power of ‘bond vigilantes’ hiking interest rates unless governments impose austerity may have been exaggerated. But the more ideologically biased investors are, the more plausible it becomes that they will reward bad economic policy. For evidence of the potential delusion of right-wing financiers, consider the contrast between the deep foreboding Donald Trump’s presidency causes most academic economists and the booming stock market, slavering over tax cuts and deregulation.

Of course, just as the fact that the left is ‘over-represented’ in higher education doesn’t mean that academics are biased, nor does the political make-up of the finance sector necessarily say anything about how it operates. But it at least raises the question: are bankers too right-wing?

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2 comments

  1. Nicholas Farhi · · Reply

    If bankers are too right wing, isn’t that a great arbitrage opportunity? Ie, sell when right wing in power, buy when left wing in power? If that is true, I suspect the opportunity has been spotted and closed to a large extent

  2. In principle, yes, there is an arbitrage opportunity. But just because you’ve identified a general bias doesn’t mean you can identify each specific instance of that bias. Or to put it another way, there’s a lot of noise which means that the rule you suggest might not work – obviously lots of other things affect interest rates/share prices besides government policy. Another issue is timing – for example, if you think the US stock market is overvalued now, that means you should sell at some point between now and the bubble popping, but it’s hard to know when exactly that will be. Moreover, as I suggest in the post, these effects can be self-fulfilling because investment decisions affect the real economy.

    Whether in practice the opportunity has been spotted and closed depends on how efficient markets are – and that’s a whole other debate.

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