NEW YORK, NY – In the world of economics, where objectivity and impartiality are highly valued, the influence of economists' political beliefs on their academic writing has been a subject of long-standing debate. These economic reports are sometimes dismissed by political pundits who suspect that economists might act as political mouthpieces for their opposition. Such concerns prompt us to question: do economists' personal biases truly impact the integrity of their research and the policy recommendations they put forth?  A new Columbia Business School study sheds light on the relationship between academic writing in economics and the political orientation of economists. Using state-of-the-art machine learning techniques, the study provides compelling evidence that the language used in published academic articles can accurately predict the political ideology of economists but also uncover compelling patterns of partisanship within the field of economics. 

The study, Political Language in Economicsshows the presence of partisan language in economics and its impact on economists' estimated policy prescriptions. Columbia Business School Professor Bruce Kogut and co-authors Professor Suresh Naidu of Columbia University and Professor Zubin Jelveh of New York University find that the language economists use in their writing can give insights into their political behavior. Even within specific fields of research, the study found detectable differences in political leanings among economists, even when they were estimating the same theoretical parameters. This suggests that economists' political beliefs can influence their research and writing. The findings of this study have far-reaching implications for understanding the complex interplay between economics, politics, and academic discourse in writing within the field of economics. 

"This research not only sheds light on the hidden political undercurrents within the field of economics but also highlights the potential impact on policy recommendations,” said Professor Bruce Kogut, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Professor of Leadership and Ethics. “Policymakers and the public should be aware of the potential biases that might emerge in economic analysis. As economists sort themselves into fields of research based on their predicted partisanship, their studies may inadvertently reflect their political orientations, influencing the conclusions drawn from economic research and potentially shaping policy prescriptions." 

The researchers began by compiling a list of over 53,000 potential economists from the American Economic Association (AEA) for the years 1993, 1997, and 2002 to 2009. They then linked the AEA economist to two datasets representing political behavior. The researchers analyzed economists' previous political campaign contributions and petition-signing activity to determine their political behavior. Using a simple binary scale, the researchers assigned either conservative behavior (+1) or liberal behavior (-1) to determine an economist's political ideology. They then assigned a political ideology to each economist based on their final score. Researchers also analyzed economists’ research published across 93 journals in economics for the years 1991 to 2008 from JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. They pulled 20,029 papers from economists and extracted 98,479 phrases and associated counts to determine any specialized language used that indicated their political ideologies. Through this analysis they found a robust correlation between patterns of academic writing and an economist’s political behavior. Showing that economists tend to gravitate toward fields that align with their political beliefs. 

Additional key takeaways: 

  • Left- and right-leaning ideology were expressed with specialized language related to specific research areas on popular issues within each party.
  • Finance and political economy were at the top of the list for the right-leaning economists, with terms that included: stock return, median voter, and rent-seeking.
  • Health care and welfare terms were used more by the economists with left-leaning ideology.

“As economists delve into the depths of academia, it becomes evident that academic writings are not mere reflections of research outcomes; they serve as a lens to reveal the hidden loyalties and beliefs that shape the economic landscape,” said Professor Kogut. “Understanding this delicate balance is crucial in conveying ideas, methods, and findings effectively to diverse audiences such as policymakers, journalists and everyday Americans.”

To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted, please visit the Columbia Business School.


About the Researcher

Bruce Kogut

Bruce Kogut

Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Professor of Leadership and Ethics
Management Division
Competitive Strategy Affiliated Faculty