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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Love 'em, hate 'em

Economists, that is. For the first time in a couple years, I attended the ASSAs, and for the first time in even more years, I interacted with some economists who are not involved with either ed policy (my research home) or teaching. Ugh, lesson learned. I had somehow forgotten that the majority of people in this discipline (or at least, the majority of those who go to the ASSAs) are white male blowhards who actually think all the math they make grad students do is useful (NOTE: I am totally not talking about YOU, awesome person who reads my blog - I am absolutely certain that no one who is a math-obsessed blowhard would find my blog remotely interesting :-)).

I guess I should take it as reassuring that I managed to forget what the 'typical economist' is like; certainly 20 years ago, when I was in my grad program at Wisconsin, I was very, VERY aware of it. But ed policy is one of those applied micro fields that is pretty equally gender balanced (particularly at the Association of Education Finance and Policy, my research home, which attracts both economists and ed school people), not to mention attracting economists who actually understand market failures and who are interested in social justice; similarly, econ ed is also quite gender-balanced, and most people interested in teaching are also interested in (or at least aware of) diversity issues. And economists interested in teaching tend to recognize that making mathematical models as complicated as possible is NOT the way to turn on undergrads to the awesomeness of our subject. So over the years, I've managed to insulate myself from many of the aspects of this discipline that I hate and the fact that I could do that does give me hope.

But the reality that struck me at the conference is that in many ways, the discipline hasn't changed at all in 20 years (longer - I read Colander's Making of an Economist in the early 90's) and that makes me despair a bit. How can we ever really move the needle of public perceptions (and misconceptions) about our field if those at the leading econ programs can't even recognize or admit there is anything wrong with what they are doing? Graduate school, in any field, is an indoctrination process so those who survive tend to have an inherent interest in defending and sustaining what they have been taught; although people who think differently might be able to find each other in the aftermath, it's hard to see how the cycle itself can be disrupted on a large scale.

That doesn't mean I'm throwing in the towel and will now start teaching all my classes with calculus and no intuition. I do think there have been small changes - when I tell people I'm an economist, one in three might now mention Freakonomics instead of the stock market or GDP, and many fewer seem to be surprised that an economist is working on education policy. And the growing number of economists interested in teaching is awesome. So I can't despair completely. And maybe it's good to be reminded every once in a while that there IS still much work to be done - maybe it will even motivate me to blog a little more often :-)...

Am I wrong? Has economics changed more than I think it has?


  1. Except for the actual presentations (and sometimes not even then), the AEA is not an intellectual gathering. It’s a status gathering. As a white male professor from a non-top10 liberal arts college, I see it from the absolute bottom of the status ranking. For example, in an earlier meeting, a presenter, with whom I was speaking, looked at the name of the college on my badge and just stopped talking to me and wordlessly walked away.
    As a status gathering, many are focused on their social network, the work of their students, and other prestige issues. Of course, there’s recruiting and some other issues that only raise the tension level even more.
    From my experience, a driving emotion in status situations is fear. The papers are usually already accepted or on R&R, so they cannot be improved. You can only threaten their acceptance and citations. Many people deal with fear in status gatherings through intimidation and other obnoxious behavior, driving out any threat. I fear, and am saddened by the fact, that these people have been successful in your case.
    I find that the regional conferences are refreshingly different and tend to be populated by those who care little for the status tournament of the AEA. I go to the AEA to “turbo boost” my knowledge of the literature, not for the conversation.
    By the way, behavioral economics, experimental economics, unique datasets, and at least an acknowledgement of non-linearity. Yes, the profession has progressed. The meeting, on the other hand, is what it has always been.

  2. I would be interested to hear your views on heterodox approached to economics, in which in general you encounter preoccupations with social justice and a more diverse set of methods.


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