The American Economic Association Turns Toward Wokeness

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In a recent Statement distributed to the membership of the American Economic Association, the Executive Committee led by AEA President Janet Yellen condemned killings of black people by police, violent racism, and such manifestations of inequality as the disproportionate COVID-19 death toll and unemployment experienced by black people.

Whether or not such sentiments are noble is beside the point. Instead, it is not quite clear why a professional organization should take an official position on controversial topics of the day. Is the AEA going to issue a statement on the quality of public education in minority communities, immigration or trade policies, the latest decisions from the Supreme Court, or Mr. Trump’s tweets?

It certainly is true that our profession has a history on racial matters decidedly checkered: Economists are not immune to the prejudices, unexamined assumptions, and discriminatory attitudes and behavior that have characterized all of humanity for millennia. Recognition of such problems and implementation of correctives---themselves legitimately subject to critical evaluation---to reduce discriminatory outcomes in the economics profession are wholly appropriate.  

The Statement obviously was occasioned by the national soul-searching attendant upon the police killing of George Floyd, and more generally the legacy of bigotry both official and social. But many of the Statement’s assumptions and assertions are questionable; and they create unstated implications deeply problematic. In the suggested “reading list on racism and the experience of Black Americans” referenced in the Statement, there are some excellent selections; The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein is an example. But nowhere to be found are readings from Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams or Glenn Loury or Roland Fryer or other black economists who for decades have challenged much conventional wisdom on racial matters with the sort of rigor absent from many of the selections that have been included. And why is the groundbreaking work of Gary Becker on the economics of racial discrimination absent?

The Statement does say that the list is being compiled. But the prolific work from those authors is so prominent that the compilers must be familiar with it. It is reasonable to hypothesize that they harbor biases against arguments that challenge their assumptions.

Accordingly, it is hard to avoid the fear that one objective of the “reading list” is indoctrination. Will the existence of the reading list impose constraints on reading assignments or recommendations for courses? Will assigned readings not politically approved prove to be a source of career endangerment? At best the answer is not obvious, a reality deeply troubling.

Equally problematic is the stance advanced by Yellen recently in the matter of Harald Uhlig, at the time the editor of the Journal of Political Economy. Uhlig had made some statements on Twitter and in blog posts---using verbiage decidedly less than academic in tone, but well within the boundaries of current political discourse---challenging some of the positions on police funding and other matters advocated by prominent supporters of Black Lives Matter. Yellen took the position that “the tweets and blog posts by Harald Uhlig are extremely troubling” and that “it would be appropriate for the University of Chicago [publisher of the Journal of Political Economy] to review Uhlig’s performance and suitability to continue as editor.” The University placed Uhlig “on leave”only a few days later, stating that it was “reviewing claims that [Uhlig] engaged in discriminatory conduct on the basis of race in a University classroom.” That this review began at most a day before Uhlig was placed on leave does not inspire confidence in its neutrality.

The AEA Code of Conduct, referenced prominently in the Statement, says

The AEA encourages the ‘perfect freedom of economic discussion.’  This goal requires an environment where all can freely participate and where each idea is considered on its own merits. Economists have a professional obligation to conduct civil and respectful discourse in all forums, including those that allow confidential or anonymous participation.

It is wholly reasonable to observe that it was the University that violated the Code of Conduct. Uhlig has been ousted as well from his consulting position with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, an outcome that does not bode well for the independence of economic policy thinking.

Has Yellen thought through the implications of Uhlig’s treatment? The long-run advancement of understanding is the central purpose of the peer-review process applied to written, documented work submitted to academic journals for publication. If editors can be dismissed for saying things inconsistent with current fashions, how long will it be before research papers reporting conceptual or empirical findings inconsistent with prevailing political imperatives are rejected out of hand? How will this bias the conduct of such research, the findings to be reported, and indeed the topics to be addressed in academic and policy research? How will such an environment affect editors’ choices among reviewers? Will the peer reviewers be induced to recommend against publication of papers reporting findings not consistent with prevailing political orthodoxy? The formal anonymity of the peer reviewers is unlikely to provide much protection, as leaking to news outlets will prove irresistible to many with axes to grind.

No one has presented evidence that Uhlig discriminated on racial grounds in his publication decisions. Instead, he expressed opinions inconsistent with current mass sensibilities, perhaps with verbiage less than delicate. There is a term to describe an unofficial environment in which unapproved opinions lead to career destruction: soft totalitarianism.

It is highly doubtful that Yellen intends any such outcome. But the implications of her stance on Uhlig are not difficult to perceive. It is crucial that the AEA Executive Committee endorse explicitly the principle that neither discrimination nor censorship will be tolerated. A failure to do so will contribute massively to the destruction of a noble intellectual tradition.

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