Here's the story: I've noticed that younger economists at radical left departments are overwhelmingly obsessed with the frontiers of research in their field -- whether it's international or labor or whatever. The goal of these economists is to familiarize themselves with the latest research trends ("fashions" is what it boils down to) and produce research according to these trends, asking leftist types of questions along the way.
While it is easy to admit that being successful in academia nowadays requires one to be well-informed of the latest trends and to conform to them whenever possible (essentially, speaking the language of mainstream methodology), a quick look at the tradition of radical economics in academia -- notably the establishment of a radical economics program at UMass in 1973-1974 -- shows how very different the behavior of these young economists is. This, in turn, leads to a more nuanced view of professionalism and careerism for leftist academic economists today. In short, the radical tradition in the 1960s and 1970s was built on really smart people posing really strong oppositional frameworks to the standard view in the mainstream.
Examples include some of the classic papers of the first group of radical economists at Umass: Steve Resnick's 1975 paper on development, or Herb Gintis' 1972 AER paper on the nature of the Outlaw. Whether integrating dialectics into a study of academics and social movements (as with Gintis) or posing a new understanding of development as a relationship between capitalist and non-capitalist economies (one of Resnick's themes), it is clear that these economists were disengaging with the mainstream in order to offer a completely different view of concepts and phenomena which neoclassical economists also try (to this day) to explain. In other words, as I've written in other areas on this blog, mainstream and radical econ can be looking at the same time period, indeed the same issue, and come to two completely different explanations of it.
The result of this strategy, for better or worse, was a set of academics who sought to change the profession's understanding of certain concepts and phenomena fundamentally by posing a new view of them. The younger crowd, being obsessed with research frontiers, is asking very interesting questions, but they are obsessed with the mainstream's recognition and incorporation of these younger economists' ideas into the broad framework. The emphasis is less on imagining a drastically different world view, and more on altering the existing world view to take new questions and variables into account.
Are there young economists out there working in the older tradition? Of course, but the trend is certainly in the opposite direction. What does it all mean? Well, I will leave this short comment with a provocative question: Who got the jobs with automatic tenure at a solid research institution?
Comments and blog responses are very much appreciated!