October 10, 2008

Becker and Posner bring their civil disagreement on the web to debate at Kent Hall

[img id="76818" align="alignleft"] In the midst of a financial crisis that has seen the Dow plummet, two U of C professors may be the only two people who have seen their stock rise—in the blogosphere, at least. Since the crisis set in, traffic on their joint blog has more than doubled, with almost 20,000 readers per day flocking to hear from Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Richard Posner, a retired judge on the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

And Posner and Becker are not shying from the limelight. They blog often with their with their regularly conflicting opinions, which the University of Chicago Press plans to turn into a book, and they spoke together last night at Kent Hall in a forum moderated by economics lecturer Allen Sanderson and hosted by the Chicago Society. The hall was filled to capacity for the event, with some students sitting in the aisles.

Immediately, the financial crisis took center stage.

“It was difficult to come up with questions for tonight because so little [has] been happening with the economy,” quipped Sanderson, who called himself the “Gwen Ifill” of the evening.

The professors had differing views on the specifics of the crisis but agreed that the situation is alarming.

“The bailout, apparently, has failed,” Posner said.

“I agree that so far we haven’t turned the corner,” Becker said.

On details, they had less to agree on. Becker characterized the problems as “a liquidity crisis,” while Posner stressed the uncertainty of the situation, identifying either liquidity or solvency as the main culprit, an account suggesting either lending or debt could be the crux of the crisis.

Looking ahead, Becker said the question for the government is “how much you want to put in and how you want to do it.” He rejected the notion of subsidizing the housing market and warned against the government taking “a radical step,” like nationalizing banks.

But the entire talk didn’t dwell on the economy. The professors found other areas of disagreement, chief among them education and its role in alleviating poverty in America.

“Education has never been a better investment,” Becker said. “The United States is failing in that regard.” He cited low high school and college graduation rates and the slide in the quality of American public schools compared to those of other countries.

But Posner doubted that the education system could go far in allaying poverty because of overwhelming problems in the school system.

“I think when there are schools where people can’t be taught evolution, you’re going to come out with a warped view in graduates,” he said.

Some audience members seemed starstruck, crowding them afterwards with additional questions and autograph requests.

Sanderson attributed the speakers’ warm reception to the quality of their work.

“It’s one of the few blogs worth reading,” he told the audience. “No offense to anyone here.”