Killing EJMR

For the last couple of weeks, the online economics community has been discussing and reacting to rampant misogyny on a website, Economics Job Market Rumors. A Justin Wolfers post to The Upshot at the New York Times reported on research by Alice Wu that laid bare the ugly, shocking language used to describe women on the website.

I recommend this post by Emily Eisner, Fiona Burlig and Aluma Dembo for a brief overview of recent research on gender inequality and discrimination in economics. Beatrice Cherrier’s post on the topic is rich and thoughtful.

The context of this discussion is that women are unacceptably underrepresented at all levels of the economics profession (source):


Our profession, our work, and our image suffer from being male-dominated. EJMR is both a disease unto itself, and a symptom of a sick discipline.

Killing EJMR

One: the supply of bullying and bile on this anonymous forum must be stopped. A minimally moderated website dominated by lowest forms of vulgar misogyny cannot continue to be a significant institution in economics. And no, I do not want to hear it that EJMR is “just another” facet of tantrum-and-harassment masculinity on the internet. Don’t even say that. It makes you look like you are grasping for excuses.

Two: the sexist culture of the profession must be changed. Even if EJMR as it is now is mercifully destroyed, the rot is deeper. Smarter people than me have been fighting for women in economics for decades. We all must promote a culture that allows all people to succeed. This means confronting and shutting down “locker room talk” in any setting, including private conversation. It means reflecting on the structure of our institutions, from our classes to our schools to our professional associations, to promote diversity. It means mentoring women at all stages.

In no way am I looking to deflect from, minimize, or excuse these top, difficult priorities. I view this as an urgent crisis.

But three: I think, though, that there is one more thing we could all be more conscious of: what can we do better to reduce the demand for EJMR, or whatever comes next?

The EJMR website has been an open and significant part of the experience of graduate students in economics for many years. It is anonymous and extremely lightly moderated, and it is known for sourness, cruelty, and bullying. As with any online community, there is a core user base who either enjoy participating in the vulgarity or are willing to overlook it. However, the site is also widely used by young economists desperate for scraps of information on the gauntlet of the academic job market.

A narrative is emerging in which there is undeniable value to EJMR that helps to explain its persistence as an institution in the economics profession. It’s a place, this narrative goes, where valuable and mostly accurate information flows that young economists want.

Has a school called to schedule interviews yet? What type of candidate are they looking for? Has a job offer gone out? Who to? Are they going to take it?

What journal should I submit to? Why haven’t I heard about my submission yet? Is my dissertation idea garbage? What kind of research are people laughing at?

The academic job market is an intensely stressful experience. It is hard to surrender agency over where you would like to live and work, to navigate dual career concerns with partners, to fly around the country on a shoestring budget, to have one’s work and worth judged over and again, to compete against hundreds of other talented and deserving people, to fear the derailment of a career before it can even properly begin. It is overwhelming.

I want to reject the narrative that EJMR is an inevitable, valuable salve for the understandable neuroses of the young academic. I think that there are concrete steps that individuals and institutions in the economics profession can take to mitigate the need for something like EJMR, not just clean it up.

Superstars and insecurity

EJMR, like so much else in the profession, caters to the elite. Its tone is dominated by the concerns and perspective of the “top schools” and their students. It belittles “low ranked” students and schools. It devours the perceived weak and shrouds itself in the excuse of “the market”. Like a person who treats waitstaff as subhuman, it is a callous manifestation of the insecurity of the wannabe who feels that they must display their superiority by belittling others.

Of course people want to gossip about the “stars” of the market and to know where the “best” research is coming from. Page Six prints gossip about celebrities, not little people. Let us leave aside for a moment that “best” is located in a Catch-22 of “top school” path dependence. We could agree, maybe, that a little luck and a little path dependence do not undermine the achievements of the top economists. Excellence is rewarded. But that’s all a question for another day.

Here’s a funny thing, though. As Trevon Logan pointed out on Twitter, the imprimatur of Berkeley, Harvard, and the New York Times has helped to elevate this story to the attention of the profession at large.


EJMR itself could not distract the attention of the profession’s most powerful until it was graced with the formal attention of the elite. It is by the top schools, for the top schools, of the top schools. The vast majority of graduate students desperate for help and reassurance must go begging for scraps at a table of people who will mock them for their perceived shortcomings. It is vulgar in the extreme.

In this it is not alone. For example: there are many “guides” to the job market out there for graduate students. They include such concerns as how to politely turn down an interview when you simply cannot fit any more into your busy schedule. They are not helpful to a student who is ill with worry that their handful of interviews will not convert to a job, who will give a job talk to three people in a broken conference room rather than a shiny hall of power to a faculty of famous faces. The guides become useless and scary.

Edited to add (8/31/17): In my haste to make a case for reform, I made unfair generalizations about job market guides. In particular I was remiss not to acknowledge that John Cawley’s guide is one that has helped countless students over the years (myself included) and indeed addresses many of the concerns that I have raised in this post. This is an example of the kind of document that would be complemented by the kind of real-time and in-person information that I have suggested in my proposals would undermine EJMR. I apologize to John and to others like him who give up their time to provide information and advice on the job market process.

For example: insane paper turnaround times on submitted research favor the students of top schools. If each rejection takes most of a year—conservatively—and if you do not have elite mentorship and an elite network, mistakes will happen and be exceptionally costly. Here is the order in which you submit to journals, they say. They are survivors. They are there to advise you because they hit those journals. Their work is surely excellent, and they also managed to place it well. If you are a little less lucky, or a little less brilliant, where will their advice lead?

The profession has no mechanisms to help the average student.

Almost no graduate students can usefully call on the direct experience of the faculty around them. Each Ph.D.-granting institution hires fewer new faculty than it graduates. The bucket overflows. Students will do worse than their advisors. It is in this context that EJMR thrives. Students see how it is. They are desperate for help. They find it, poisoned by insecure hatefulness, in an anonymous forum that in a tragic twist of fate exhibits the very same elite bias that drove them to it in the first place.

What can we do?

1. Formalize interview information reporting through Job Openings for Economists

This is the most obvious way that the AEA can undercut EJMR. I appreciate that the incentive for schools to report when they have made calls or offered interviews is not clear cut. Too bad.

A more radical approach here would truly centralize interview offers on a clearinghouse schedule, but I accept that a centralized mechanism like this is not going to happen in economics.

2. Establish formal cross-school, cross-rank mentorship networks

Students need help and support that their own school’s faculty cannot adequately provide. We must have institutions that connect students with the economists that they will become, not the economists that they are shamed for being unlike.

This is probably awkward on both sides. No-one wants to admit that they are not a top dog. That means some bravery, humility, and discretion is required.

3. Formalize practical information on journal policies and characteristics

If we were starting with a blank slate, I would imagine most economists would have plenty of ideas for how to design research dissemination—submitting, refereeing, editing, publishing.

Given that we’re not starting over, we need a living database of relevant characteristics of as many journals as we can corral. Turnaround times, journal policies, fees, readership, citations, even the distribution of authors’ affiliations.

The Committee for the Status of Women in the Economics Profession has an excellent document on navigating the research publication process. This provides a great template for the kind of concerns we need to address. The more concrete we can make the advice, the better.

Treat the disease

There are two traps here. One is that we succeed in reforming or replacing EJMR without having an impact on the sexist and racist culture of economics. There may even be a risk of backlash as that certain type of Internet Man resents being prevented from being hateful.

The other is that we achieve a minor miracle in affecting true, even if slight, change on a profession that is overdue for it, but that we miss an opportunity to implement complementary positive reforms.

We can take this opportunity to support young economists whose mental and physical wellbeing suffers under the pressures of our job market and early career concerns. A tiny fraction of graduating economists can choose their own adventure. The vast majority can hope, at best, to get a decent job in a decent place, to uproot their life and their family and their support network, again: to survive.

Let’s all commit to helping each other.


Just a quick footnote to the economic man stuff. Talking about Wikipedia probably gives me a credibility problem, but the page I referred to yesterday to is actually pretty impressive, and has some good points worth mentioning.

“One problem with making the Homo economicus model more sophisticated is that sometimes the model becomes tautologically true, i.e., true by definition. If someone has a “taste” for variety, for example, it becomes difficult if not impossible to distinguish economic rationality from irrationality. In this case, the Homo economicus model may not add any new information at all to our economic understanding.”

Indeed: anything can be rationalized. The whole sorry debate about economic man could probably be avoided if we understand that “the Homo economicus model” isn’t supposed to add new information to our economic understanding. The economist’s ultimate goal is not to figure out how people behave – that’s just something we have to address along the way to describing things. Economic man is no more of an end than the super-supercomputer I invoked yesterday.

However, my favorite bit from the page is this nice little dig:

“These criticisms [of economic man] are especially valid to the extent that the professor asserts that the simplifying assumptions are true and/or uses them in a propagandistic way.”

No argument here. Economics teaching is usually depressing. Why is the first thing students of economics see a supply and demand diagram? How does that help them understand what we’re trying to do, what we assume? How, more importantly, is that value free? How can that separate economics from capitalism, money, markets? How can that be economics?

It is primarily when targeting the limiting assumptions made in constructing undergraduate models that the criticisms listed above are valid.”

Imagine hundreds, thousands of students come to you every year. You can show them why your subject is exciting, what it can do philosophically and practically, ask big questions, educate an astonishing number of diverse students, make the next generation of economists good scientists while allowing all normative opinion to flourish around the argument. You can take students with all preconceptions, with all beliefs, and send those students away in their diversity of thought as economists. The next generation of economists would have a fighting chance of being value-free, and the debate wouldn’t be “us versus the economists”, but just “us”.

Hundreds of thousands of students do come to Econ 101 every year. We show them a supply and demand diagram and reinforce all prejudices. We present economics as an answer. How many minds do we lose? How can we tolerate the waste?

Who is economic man?

A provocative opening to this article attacking something called “economic man”:

“Myth: Homo economicus is a valid assumption of human behavior.
Fact: Homo economicus is a fiction useful to right-wing economists.”

“Economic man” would be too easy, of course; “Homo economicus” sounds more intellectual and somehow also more ridiculous. Anyway, if I pretend not to see the right-wing bit – what’s a right-wing economist? – I think the fact is a fact and the myth is a fact too, and not just because defining a “valid assumption” is not quite as obvious as it seems.

The essay is actually pretty interesting, though obviously normatively motivated. It goes on to say:

“Specifically, social scientists believe that human behavior is often complex, imperfect, limited, self-contradictory and unpredictable. Homo economicus, however, is a greatly simplified model which assumes that individuals possess the following traits:

* Perfect self-interest
* Perfect rationality
* Perfect information”

I love that “human behavior is…. unpredictable”; the logical conclusion of that argument would be to abandon all social science, would it not? Let’s take the long view and ignore that bit. Aside from that, as I’ve argued before, the perfect information trait has been scrutinized intently for a few decades, so it’s probably an obsolete criticism. The rationality bit is, again, untestable, since what we mean by rationality is that some pattern that’s to some degree predictable – whatever it might be – affects behavior.

The self-interest trait is the one that comes in for a lot of criticism, in the essay and generally. The most important myth to dispel right away is that “self-interest” means “cares only about things that materially affect me”; it means “cares only about things that I care about”, which is delightfully tautological and more innocuous. We have a special definition of “selfish”. I think what the critic really means is more in the spirit of the following, from Wikipedia (sorry):

“Economic man is also amoral, ignoring all social values unless adhering to them gives him utility. Some believe such assumptions about humans are not only empirically inaccurate but unethical.”

There are two problems with that: one is the use of “unethical”, which I’ll save for another day, and the second is methodological. It’s possible to write down a rational, self-interested “economic man” who will do anything. Literally anything can be “rationalized”; it’s meaningless to say that it’s “empirically inaccurate” to assume that “social values” give a person utility, because it’s impossible to empirically answer that question one way or another. Economists seeking accuracy would, methodologically, model a person who acted in accordance with social values as if that person got utility from conforming to social values. Our rational, self-interested man has magically developed a social conscience!

Later in the original article, the author says (in direct contradiction to their earlier claim that behavior is unpredictable, by the way):

“Biologists recognize four levels of survival: the gene, the individual, the group, and the specie. All of them interact to produce the complex and often paradoxical behavior we witness in humans. The error of Homo economicus is that it focuses only on one level: the individual. It cannot explain why couples bear children (to promote genetic survival), or why soldiers often sacrifice their lives in war (to promote group survival), or why people practice charity (to promote human survival).”

Again, I can only plead that we recognize that whatever economists do or are perceived to do, their method of modeling people can explain anything, and I mean that as both a criticism and a compliment. Our method is neutral, our method is empty. Attack the normative interpretation of our conclusions. Attack the assumptions we make. Don’t attack the method: you’re shooting at thin air.

Let’s do a thought experiment: imagine we had a super-supercomputer that could accommodate all the complexity we wanted, and imagine that our computer has also figured out how to perfectly model every single human being, and imagine that we believe it. Forget the fatalist implications and just ask: would an economist – who seeks to model choice and the allocation of scarce resources, to describe the world, to make predictions, and, ultimately, to inform – reject the computer? Would he reject the model? If he would, he is not a scientist: if the economist would reject it, then I’ll let all the critics of economics attack him, because surely the only way to justify rejection of that gift would be because the model would generate predictions that the economist didn’t like.

Economists should never make their “economic man” to suit their ideological goals. That’s not science. We must make our “economic man” realistic but clear, acknowledge what he does and does not do, what he does and does not embody. He can be anything we want: we are therefore powerful, and must then be honest, if nothing else.