Killing EJMR, redux

Once again economics Twitter is being forced to confront the racist, misogynistic, and abusive website called Economics Job Market Rumors. This time the catalyst is abuse directed towards graduate students who have been discussing how to advocate for anti-racist changes in their home institution. This is taking place in the context of anti-racist protests and the Black Lives Matter movement across the U.S. and the world, and the associated discussions of the economics of racism and racism within economics.

Three years ago I wrote about killing EJMR in the context of its misogyny, where it is a symptom of toxic attitudes in the profession at large.Now we are talking about its racism, where EJMR is a symptom once again. Two resources to begin to learn more about the broader context of racism within the profession is William Spriggs’s open letter to economists and Lisa Cook’s work on how the economics profession excludes Black women. I argued before that, in addition to taking positive steps to enhance diversity in our ranks, we could take concrete steps to reduce the demand for EJMR by better supporting students. I want to continue to make that argument here.

I’m reluctant to give oxygen to the dumpster fire that is EMJR. I want to make quite clear that I think that to the extent possible we should never, ever visit the site. Clicks and traffic are the currency of the internet, and we should not spend ours there. I realize that sometimes it is unavoidable—when targeted abuse is being perpetrated, for example, we may have to learn what is being done in order to combat it and protect its victims. But I felt like I wanted to write about it once more to continue to advocate for changes in our behavior and mindset as economists that might contribute to undermining the site.

When we as economists find ourselves in situations where we have power or privilege—because of our professional role, our status in the profession or our institutions, our appearance to the world—we can try to use our power or privilege in a positive way. I want to suggest a few ways in which I think we might be able to, slowly but surely, diminish the influence of EJMR and the role it plays for graduate students by taking concrete actions.

  1. Intervene and speak up in a constructive way when an economist speaks or acts in an explicitly or implicitly racist and sexist way.

When we witness discrimination, harassment, or marginalization, we should try to say something to try to contribute to a change in attitude or behavior. I think this is important because it shows the person who has displayed implicit or explicit bias that you notice, you care, and you would prefer them to behave differently in the future. Even small acknowledgements could make a big cumulative difference, particularly if you belong to a common in-group with the person whose words or actions were offensive or damaging.

It can be exhausting or humiliating to have to engage with racist or sexist attitudes in a respectful way. But we have to do so, particularly because members of the groups being targeted don’t have a choice. They have to navigate the dilemma of speaking up or staying silent in the face of those attitudes every time they hear them.

2. Understand and engage with the fears and insecurities of non-“superstar” graduate students and job market candidates.

If we are in contact with graduate students in our home institutions or at conferences and so on, we must talk to and engage with all grad students. We must not neglect those who are not perceived to be on a trajectory to a top department, top publications, and positions of power.

This is important because economics is a rigidly hierarchical profession and doctoral programs tend to inherently valorize the narrative of academic superstardom. It can be discouraging and scary to be a graduate student in general, but it can be worse for those who are either implicitly or explicitly told by their home department that they are lesser in the eyes of those who should be their mentors and teachers. It is not enough that departments have some faculty who are “nice” to grad students—when there are some faculty members who treat graduate students as the embodiment of their research and not as people, it becomes clear to students that this is a risk that they may face in the profession.

3. In job searches and in hiring, be as transparent as possible with candidates at every step of the process.

This is important because the job market for graduate students is intimidating and stressful but also opaque. An alleged reason for EJMR to exist is to provide scraps of unverified information to anxious students as they navigate a process that, unfortunately, is cruelly deterministic of their professional future.

We have to do this even when it makes our lives as recruiters more difficult or more inconvenient. I understand why we don’t want to tell candidates that interview offers have all been made or that a job offer has gone out to a particular candidate. But it is a generous and kind act to do so, and it undermines a key role that EJMR plays for grad students, even those students who do not at all subscribe to the abusive attitudes and behaviors that flow from the site. We’ve seen a rise in the use of hashtags like #EconJobMarket to try to increase the flow of public information in the last few years, and I think that kind of thing is a nice way to try to reduce demand for EJMR at the margin.

4. Learn, understand, and internalize the truth that there are many ways to be a good, successful, fulfilled economist.

There are many paths to a successful career as an economist—not just becoming a “top academic researcher” with “top publications” at a “top department”. This is a more abstract cultural issue, but I think it’s important that each of us take steps to “deprogram” ourselves from this infectious idea.

That means taking the time to educate ourselves about career paths, research topics and methods, job types, journals, and pedagogy that are outside the area of our own personal experience. I confess that I learned this one the hard way, though years of my personal career journey and choices. Economists who are primarily teachers, who write about less popular topics, who publish in different journals than you or not at all, who work outside academia, who have chosen a different work-life balance, or who have prioritized different things in their life from you are not worse than you. Luckily, this can be as simple as learning about people who are in different positions in the profession and about their experiences and journeys. There are many economists in the world doing work, living their lives, and traveling their careers. We must not only recognize and celebrate those who we perceive as “successful” according to our own personal measures.

In summary: whenever we can, let’s support members of the economics community in situations where they are less powerful. Our active learning, generosity, and intervention can help us to lift each other up, and wouldn’t that be a great thing?


Efficient outrage

Matt Damon put yet another foot in his already quite full mouth this week. In an interview with ABC, he was invited to discuss the reckoning of sexual harassment and assault in his and other industries. He decided, for some reason, to go to bat for the idea that not enough is being made of what he perceives as a gradation of harm across different manifestations of workplace misogyny. Implicit is an attack on those who would advocate swift and severe punishment for what Damon would have us believe are minor sins.

I want to make the case that textbook economic theory will firmly reject Damon’s line of reasoning. Outrage of the type that Damon describes is more than justified, it is efficient. The market and the law don’t have the tools to reckon with the full, true cost of misogyny. This market failure makes for fertile soil for institutions that force perpetrators and enablers to internalize some of those costs. Outrage-of-the-day culture invites a lot of criticism from those looking to score a cool, contrarian take, but it is smart economics.

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Published today at The Upshot: What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists? by Wren McDonald. I want to pick up on a couple of points raised since they really get at things I’ve written and obsessed about a lot over the years.

I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s premise that sociology—in particular ethnography—and other academic disciplines can bring just as much or more relevant knowledge and expertise to public policy debates as economics can. I’m going to get a bit depressing in a minute here so I don’t mean this to come across as a backhanded compliment or something. I do mean it seriously. My criticisms here are directed at very small words in the article that aren’t really about the article at all, but about us, economists, and our relationship to various publics, our professional PR, our toxic guild label. On the actual content of the article, the premise, the spirit, the recommendations I am quite on board.

Alright, let’s do this.

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Dinner party advice for the economist

From The Economist’s Free Exchange blog, comes some dinner party advice, based on Justin Wolfers:

JUSTIN WOLFERS discusses a common problem for the economist bon vivant—people are always asking you what’s going to happen to such and such economic variable. Will the economy go into recession? Will the Federal Reserve raise interest rates? Should I sell my shares in Bear Stearns?

Very true. It’s no fun at all to have to admit to being an economist.

On the Venn diagram of ‘what people think of when they meet someone who introduces themselves as an economist’, macroeconomic stuff (inflation, unemployment) and finance (stocks, commodities, assets) are huge whopping great circles, much bigger than they are on the ‘what economists do’ diagram. Hence the point of this site, I suppose.

Anyway, here’s some advice:

Henceforth, when asked about oil prices, simply throw out some jargon, use phrases like “short-run volatility”, and then suggest that the price in three months’ time, or indeed a year, will be the same as it is today.

I love it.