The Dismal (and Too Elitist?) Science

Economists and discipline's main association face criticism that the field's power centers are a small number of top departments. Grad students, meanwhile, push for standards of conduct.

January 3, 2019
 

As thousands of economists gather this week for the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, the field and the association are facing criticism on a number of fronts.

One scholar's posts on Twitter -- receiving praise from others on social media -- note that the association's leaders, its top journals and a key prize increasingly appear tied to a very small number of departments at elite universities, in his view potentially excluding good people and good ideas from the attention they deserve. While many disciplines have particularly influential departments, this critique suggests that economics may be in a class by itself. The criticism also comes as hundreds of graduate students have issued a public call for the field, its departments and the association to adopt codes of conduct to prevent abusive treatment of graduate students and young scholars.

The tweets about the profession came from Jacob L. Vigdor, an economist who is a professor of public policy at the University of Washington. Here are a few of those attracting attention.

Many economists have been praising Vigdor for putting forward these issues and doing so with his name attached. Some have suggested he may have more freedom than they do because he works in a public policy school, not an economics department.

In an email interview, he said that he was hearing this as well.

"I think I'm saying things that thousands of other economists have long thought to themselves but dare not articulate because they are worried about possible repercussions for their career," he said. "This in turn reflects another lesson I learned from reviewing hundreds of tenure dossiers -- that universities grant it so that their scholars might take risks exactly like this."

Vigdor said it was his experience working on universitywide tenure and promotion committees that made him look closely at the norms in fields outside economics.

He said he "spent three years on a provost-level P&T committee (including one year as chair), where I had to broaden my horizons still further, to understand how things work in the sciences, engineering, the book-driven humanities, business schools, divinity schools, the basic science divisions of med schools, and so forth. This also gave me many opportunities to see fellow committee members from across the university scratch their heads in contemplating the strangeness of economics."

Vigdor's work at Washington and previously at Duke University has him very much immersed in the world of leading research universities, and his Ph.D. is from Harvard University. But in looking at the places that dominate economics, Harvard and a few other institutions are the very top tier.

Olivier Blanchard, president of the AEA, declined to comment on Vigdor's criticisms. Blanchard is a scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, but he spent the bulk of his career at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (A listing of the association's past presidents confirms Vigdor's count.)

Tyler Cowen, chair of economics at George Mason University, has attracted many followers through both his scholarship and his blog, Marginal Revolution.

He said that he agreed with the idea that influence of economics comes from a relatively small number of institutions, and he thinks the number is shrinking. "What used to be something like a 'top six' has over time become the 'top two,' namely Harvard and MIT."

Cowen said that he doesn't "find that entirely ideal, by any means." But he also said that those departments deserve praise for their work. "Harvard and MIT are in fact remarkably good at finding, evaluating and attracting top talent. It is stunning how good they are at this, and we should not begrudge them that," he said. (Cowen is an example, having earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. His undergraduate alma mater is George Mason, where he teaches.)

The centralization of top departments, he said, worries him less than do "pressures for conformity."

Cowen added that he is sympathetic to Vigdor's criticism, but that the centralization may be "an opportunity" for departments outside the elites to shine. "The centralized centers of influence are going to miss important ideas in their early stages," Cowen said. "Both public choice and experimental economics came out of non-top schools," including to some extent George Mason, he said. "So did blogging. If something is unfair, well, in part that is your big chance."

Graduate Students' Open Letter

Vigdor's criticisms have circulated even as an open letter from graduate students (many of them at top programs) has been circulating calling for reform of departments, the discipline and the association

The letter was drafted amid a scandal over a prominent economist, Roland Fryer of Harvard University. Fryer resigned from the executive committee of the association amid reports of harassment allegations he faces at Harvard (he has declined to comment on them). The association said it was unaware of the allegations when he was named to the committee.

The open letter, issued in response to the reports on Fryer, says in part, "This is a painful moment for our discipline. Abuses of power, bullying, and harassment damage peoples’ health and happiness, ruin careers, and reduce the quality of scholarship in economics. Moreover, it is well documented that these abuses of power disproportionately harm women, minorities, and queer individuals. These frustrating realities have pushed us to ask how economics can address the power imbalances that drive out talented individuals, prevent the inclusion of underrepresented groups, and collectively damage our discipline."

The letter calls on leaders in the profession to "listen to us" about the problems faced by graduate students and others, for each department to "create, communicate, and enforce department-level standards of conduct" and for the association to "implement a discipline-wide reporting system to document bad behavior."

Blanchard, the AEA president, tweeted praise for the letter and said that the association was working on the issues raised in it. His tweet called the letter "careful and constructive."

Vigdor, asked if he had received any response from the association, said that he had not.

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