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Political Correctness in the American Economic Association

January 16th, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The American Economic Association just issued a couple of draft documents which display a kind of political correctness that economics has been pretty good at avoiding. I know and admire a couple of the authors, but the documents are dreadful. Here are some comments. I only spent an hour and a half writing this, which I mention so that (a) You can see how easy it is to find flaws, (b) You won’t think I’m spending excessive time on it, and (c) If there are mistakes, you’ll know one reason why.

American Economic Association
Ad Hoc Committee to Consider a Code of Professional Conduct
Interim Report

January 5, 2018

1.The AEA appears to be attentive to the diversity of the Executive Committee with respect to gender and race. This attention should be ongoing. Additionally, the AEA should consider the diversity of its committees and officers along dimensions including the range of academic departments, universities and colleges, and types of careers represented in nominations.

No: the Executive Committee should be composed of the best people, certainly without the discrimination by race and gender it now practices, but also with respect to types of jobs people hold. There is a perception that the leadership is cliquish and protective of bad behavior by people from elite schools. Maybe the perception is correct, maybe not—I have no opinion— but adding to the clique won’t help that kind of thing,it just changes the favored personnel. If there’s a problem, address the attitude.

2 (a). Survey members about the climate in the profession, and elicit reactions to potential initiatives such as those listed in this report.

This could be very valuable. It should include asking about examples where chairmen or deans have pressured departments to hire on the basis of race and sex. Illegal though that may be, I have heard of numerous instances of it happening; indeed, it may almost be routine these days. Men have a harder time on the rookie job market than women, and this is a real problem. A survey of this kind could have bombshell results, especially in light of the widespread claim that the opposite is true.

2(e). “Commission an observational study of seminar and conference presentations in economics as well as other disciplines, and quantify the extent to which there is unproductive aggressiveness in economics or its subfields.”

Also quantify the extent to which there is *inadequate* aggressiveness in economics. I think that’s a much bigger problem. I have rarely seen an overaggressive seminar— only the Demsetz-Klein workshop in the 1980’s comes to mind, and have been part of many other workshops including a year spent at Chicago 1989/90 where the seminars were aggressive but only appropriately so. I have often seen boring, useless workshops where the weak assumptions, boring topics, or inadequate expositions of the presenter go politely unchallenged but everybody thinks at the end, “What a rotten seminar! We’d better never invite him back again.” Economics is very fortunate in its culture, and we must protect it.

3. Best practices for addressing bias

All five suggestions are useless and wasteful. The way to address bias is to set up a committee to listen to complaints and then to hammer any editor or referee caught misbehaving, especially if they are at an elite school or are well-connected (like me, for example, MIT ’84, 59 years old). Ex ante measures like those suggested are much more costly and they are wasteful because they are applied to 100% of people rather than the 2% who misbehave.

3a. Study and encourage the use of gender-bias “detectors” for letters of

These sound like witch sniffers in Africa. I bet they’re as bogus as the implicit bias test that has by now been thoroughly as discredited in psychology as phrenology, though non-psychologists often don’t know that it has been.

3b. Adopt training for editors to avoid relying too heavily on institutional background and network connections in screening and referee decisions.

“Training”? Hah! It’s true there is a balancd between relying too much and too little on the credentials of referees, but do you really believe formal training will help?

3c. Encourage departments to implement training workshops for faculty on professional conduct and hiring.

We should actively *discourage* such workshops, and come to the aid of departments whose politically correct deans try to impose them. It sounds like code words for ideology training by identity politics warriors. In any case, it sounds like a waste of time. The hiring committees should spend the time reading some extra files instead.

3d. Encourage departments to implement training for students on professional conduct, including especially bias but also honest and transparent research practices.

Ditto. It is true that students should be taught to be moral in their research practices, but that should be part of the normal program when students learn to write papers. PhD students know not to plagiarize, and any decent person knows they should give credit where it is due. It’s true that we should emphasize keeping good records, writing clean commented code, and packaging up our data nicely at the end of a project (I confess! I am remiss here often.). Is that what this means?

3e. Post examples of good practices for training and instruction surrounding professional conduct.

I’m not sure what this means. I do suggest posting examples of bad practices, which not only illustrates what is bad, but helps deter by stigmatizing the bad practicer. Having the full stories, with all the details of cover-up and cowardice, could help a lot.

4. a. Create a gated website where job market information can be posted by departments, agencies, and firms. The recent AEA survey of department chairs suggests overwhelming support for this idea, as long as the information posted consists of updates on dates rather than specific names of candidates. Creating this website
would allow job market candidates to obtain the information they seek without accessing social media that includes irrelevant or offensive material. The website should include advice and general information about the job market process provided by established members of the economics profession.

This is the “Let’s kill Economics Job Market Rumors” item, I think. It confirms the fears of the bro’s there that the AEA is indeed elitist, biased, and politically correct, and wants to conceal the misdeeds of editors and referees.

I think it will fail, because it wants to be EJMR, but boring and with less information. The “rather than specific names of candidates” part is hilarious. The names are what everyone is interested in! Also, it looks like this is trying to shift the burden to department chairmen and such to provide the data, and they’re too busy already.

4b. Most individuals have procedures within their institutions for addressing harassment. Sometimes these arrangements fail. Hence, the AEA should consider whether it should provide arrangements for members of the profession to seek advice or assistance relating to harassment where institutional remedies are unsuccessful. The committee discussed multiple options, but did not reach a consensus:
i. The AEA could create an AEA ombuds to help resolve conflicts that may
arise between individual members of the AEA and their own institution. The ombuds would take action, i.e., contact the relevant institution.
ii. The AEA could create a network of mentors who could advise those facing harassment. A mentor would provide confidential advice, but not take action or report the claim of harassment. In the event a mentor hears the same issue from multiple individuals, the mentor could share this
information with those individuals provided they all approve.

This might be good, but it sounds weak. I am on the faculty senate at my own university, and the issue arose of whether a faculty committee should hear complaints from faculty who had been punished by the administration for sexual harassment, or whether, as one former senate president said, if they were punished by the administration they must be guilty anyway and there’s no need for review and some danger because of “imbalance of power” already favoring the punished faculty member.

There seemed to be general agreement that there was no need to hear complaints from *victims* after faculty had *not* been punished, and everyone laughed at first when I suggested that would be equally appropriate. But it would be. Universities are terrible at dealing with this kind of thing. They seem to err in both directions, much like American immigration policy and unethical research policy. If it’s a powerful professor who’s accused, he gets off; if it’s a mere student (that is, not an athlete), he gets railroaded. The AEA could help with both kinds of cases.

Having an ombudsman— that is, an official contact person or committee– is a start. This person should *not* be a liberal activist. It should be a random honorable senior economist, someone with no axe to grind. It should be someone just as fair to a wrongly accused professor as to a harassed one. Don’t call him an “ombuds”; that sounds too much like “earbuds”.

What is this person supposed to do? The suggestion is that they just be someone who can help go through university procedures. That would be useful, since there are probably departments where none of the faculty have the guts to help a victim, though I hope most departments have at least one such person— and that the identity of that person is common knowledge, just as big a problem. But it would be better for the ombudsman to take it a step further, consulting with other AEA people and publicizing misconduct if the university either falsely accuses or covers up.

Draft AEA Code of Professional Conduct
January 5, 2018

This is a bland statement that everybody should be nice. I hate such statements, as mere clutter in a world of information overload, and as reeking with hypocrisy, since their most common use is to avoid actually doing anything about evil.

The AEA seeks to create a professional environment with equal opportunity and equal treatment for all economists, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, health condition, marital status, parental status, genetic information, professional status, or personal connections.

This  statement is hilarious. It’s code for “We’re liberals”, of course, with not a lot of meaning beyond that. Nobody would take it literally, I think. If someone is old and feeble, I will not give theme equal treatment; I will give them more than usual respect and I will try to help them do things that are hard for them. if someone doesn’t have the right professional status by a couple of years into the job, commonly he’s fired— that is, if he doesn’t finish his dissertation and doesn’t get his Ph.D.  The funny part is  the items like “parental status”. Is discrimination against bastards a problem in the economics profession? Who, exactly, is keeping track of whether each job candidate’s parents were married at the time of his birth? How does “genetic information” enter into being an economist?  What does the AEA intend to do about people with “personal connections” having better opportunities? If someone hears about a job opening at a conference, does that disqualify him? Really, let’s not succumb to the absurdity of so many fields in academia these days.  We in economics should know better.


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