Many people who saw my documentary film about the 2008 economic crisis, Inside Job, found that the most surprising, and disturbing, portion of the film was its revelation of widespread conflicts of interest in universities, think tanks, and among prominent academic experts on finance, economics, business, and government regulation. Viewers who watched my interviews with eminent professors were stunned at what came out of their mouths.
Over the last thirty years, in parallel with deregulation and the rising power of money in American politics, significant portions of American academia have deteriorated into “pay to play” activities. These days, if you see a famous economics professor testify in Congress, appear on television news, testify in a legal case or regulatory proceeding, give a speech, or write an opinion article in the New York Times (or the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, or anywhere else), there is a high probability that he or she is being paid by someone with a big stake in what’s being debated. Most of the time, these professors do not disclose these conflicts of interest, and most of the time their universities look the other way. Increasingly, professors are also paid to testify for defendants in fraud trials, both civil and criminal. The pay is high — sometimes a quarter of a million dollars for an hour of congressional testimony. But for banks and other highly regulated industries, it’s a trivial expense, a billion or two a year that they barely notice; and just as with politicians, it’s a very good investment, with very high benefits.
Academics on industry payrolls are now so numerous and powerful that they can often prevent universities, professional associations, and academic journals from adopting or enforcing strong conflict-of-interest policies. They also have a chilling, even dominant, effect on several areas of academic research and policy analysis.
The sale of academic “expertise” for the purpose of influencing government policy, the courts, and public opinion is now a multibillion-dollar business. Academic, legal, regulatory, and policy consulting in economics, finance, and regulation is dominated by a half dozen consulting firms, several speakers’ bureaus, and various industry lobbying groups that maintain large networks of academics for hire specifically for the purpose of advocating industry interests in policy and regulatory debates.