Thursday, July 30, 2020

economics is a disgrace

I can't (yet) bring myself to do the multi-tweet reply thing, so I will link to this instead.

If you are an academic economist and somehow haven't yet read Claudia Sahm's post, you are obligated to do so now.

I admit I have been dismissive of complaints about the culture in the past, and I want to explain why and how I have come to recognize the problems, in case it helps anyone else bridge the understanding gap as well.

Most complaints about the culture of economics are about treatment of women and minorities specifically. These accusations invite defensiveness, because they are easy (in isolation!) to re-interpret as bad behavior that has nothing to do with gender or race. I have reacted that way myself because I personally have not experienced anything I would call sexist, and have seen plenty of effort to help women and minorities. In the absence of real statistics about how advisors treat minorities versus non-minorities, about the disparity in feedback those groups receive (properly controlling for other factors of course!) it's easy to write off bad behavior as unrelated to identity. Perhaps I should be more trusting of personal accounts that are interpreted as racially/gender motivated, but I'm naturally skeptical. And I will probably get in trouble for saying this (maybe this will be the 1000th blog post I don't publish out of fear of getting in trouble for attempting to discuss something sensitive...) but I honestly don't think that skepticism is a bad thing. Better evidence would go a long way not just to convince me of the problem, but to understand the problem better and make effective changes. Skepticism that demands such evidence is, I believe, a good thing.

However, over the last year or two I've realized that I'm very oblivious to the effect of my gender on my interactions. I'm obviously a woman but that fact is entirely irrelevant to my identity; I don't notice when I'm the only woman in the room, I don't hear comments about women as applying to me, and it always catches me by surprise when my gender is explicitly referred to as a factor (usually 'we need you for this committee because there has to be at least one woman.') It never occurs to me that particular interactions might be influenced by my gender, so I don't experience them as sexist. But the deluge of accounts that have, by the participants, been interpreted as sexist, prompted me to reconsider my interpretation. That has changed my prior belief about the likelihood that accounts of bad behavior are, in fact, due to gender/race/etc.

More importantly, however, I also got a little bit outside of the economics bubble and saw just how terrible our culture is by comparison. Regardless of whether any of our cultural problems are solely or particularly problematic for women and minorities, our culture is nasty, overly competitive*, overly cliquish**, ludicrously hypnotized by the power of the Top 5 journals to cast the ultimate judgement of the quality of research (rather than the quality of research that happens to fall into the narrow fads that are currently deemed to represent 'general interest'), dismissive, elitist, rude, and negative.

My work lies at the border of social psychology and behavioral economics, and UQ is fortunate to have an amazing social psychology group right next door to the School of Economics. I therefore started attending, at least when the topic veered close enough to my interests, the social psychology group's weekly seminars. I can't even express how different they feel to an economics seminar. Instead of dourly entering the judgement room where we will listen to a presenter and attempt to score points by identifying faults in their research, their seminars are friendly, positive, constructive, understanding, encouraging, and just a huge breath of fresh air by comparison.

Economists go to work with an attitude problem. The toxic culture is what results. If it's blatantly obvious in seminars, it has to be much more detrimental in every other context***. It certainly disproportionately affects women and minorities, but regardless, it hurts everyone.

Lastly, I want to point out that while Claudia's post is excellent and brave, the full extent of the problem will not be recognized without more comprehensive data, and that will not be forthcoming as long as people in a position to report incidents fear retaliation. We need a way to anonymously share our accounts (experienced or witnessed). That isn't EJMR...

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* Sure, competition that leads to better research is great. Competition for the sake of winning is not. A very well-respected economist at a "top 5 school" once told me that if anyone ever criticizes your work, the only way to respond is to immediately double down and go on the offensive. The sadder thing is that, within the culture, that's probably true.

** It's amazing how much easier it is to get an email reply from economists you don't know when your email signature is from a "top 5 school", as mine was in grad school, than when it's from a lesser-known institution. Sure, I understand signaling, but if your judgment of potential value of of interaction is based so much on the signal sent by institutional affiliation, you are being immorally lazy. Or if your judgment of potential value of interaction is based on "how likely is it that this person will be in a position of power over me in the future", well... if that isn't a sign of a culture problem, I don't know what is.

*** This is why our publication process is so godawful compared to other fields. Refereeing/editing should not be a game in which to score points or an avenue to promote personal interests!

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