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Jerome Lyle Rappaport

Jerome Lyle Rappaport
Founder and Board Member
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Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser
Professor of Economics at Harvard University
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Stephen P. Johnson

Stephen P. Johnson
Executive Director of Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation
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Greg Massing

Greg Massing
Executive Director for the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service
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Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts
Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School
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Joseph Curtatone

Joseph Curtatone
Mayor, City of Somerville
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Tim H. Davis

Tim H. Davis
Independent Research Consultant
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Scott Harshbarger

Scott Harshbarger
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Vivien Li

Vivien Li
Executive Director of The Boston Harbor Association
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Guest contributors

Monika Bandyopadhyay
Suffolk University Law Student

David Barron
Harvard Law School and former Deputy Counsel for the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Department of Justice

Linda Bilmes
Senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration.

Brandy H.M. Brooks
Director, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Bruner Foundation

Felicia Cote
Rappaport Fellow, Harvard Law School/Harvard Kennedy School.

Amanda Eden
Suffolk University Law School student

Sara Farnum
Student, Suffolk Univ. Law School

Kristin Faucette
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Benjamin Forman
Research Director, MassINC

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday
JD/MBA student at Suffolk University Law School and the Sawyer School of Business

Theodore Kalivas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

David Linhart
Student, Boston University School of Law

Antoniya Owens
Research Analyst, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Susan Prosnitz
Senior Advisor, TSA, Washington, DC

Ben Thomas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

Matthew Todaro
Student at Boston College Law School

Alexander von Hoffman
Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies

Brett Walker
Student, Boston College Law School

Margarita Warren
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Where to Draw a Line on Ethics

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011
By Edward Glaeser

Last week, The New York Times reported that “faced with a run of criticism, including a popular movie, leaders of the American Economic Association, the world’s largest professional society for economists, founded in 1885, are considering a step that most other professions took a long time ago — adopting a code of ethical standards.”

As the American Economic Association begins its annual convention in Denver this week, should creating an ethical code for economists be at the top of its agenda?

Economists are no purer than anyone else, and I share the view of my fellow Economix blogger Nancy Folbre that we all have room to become better people. But I’m skeptical that the A.E.A. is well suited to arbitrate the ethics of the economics profession.

In one area, however, the A.E.A. can act productively: It can create clear conflict-of-interest disclosure rules for its prestigious journals.

The film “Inside Job” raised disturbing questions about whether economists who regularly wrote or opined on various policy debates failed to report relevant background information, such as board memberships or consulting arrangements. The accusations are serious, and it seems clear that the profession has been carelessly cavalier about conflicts of interest.

As individuals, most of us could do with higher moral standards, but what are the appropriate institutional remedies?

It would be nice to think that the American Economic Association could lay down a code of ethics that would solve everything, but that would be a vast institutional overreach. The biggest problem with that approach is that the A.E.A. is not a licensing or accrediting association, like the American Bar Association.

The A.E.A. publishes journals, organizes an annual meeting and gives out awards, such as the John Bates Clark Medal. Membership in the A.E.A. is not selective, and many economists choose not to join, without much harm to their professional reputation (I think I’ve let my own membership lapse).

Moreover, the economists who are elected to lead the A.E.A. are not chosen for their expertise in ethical matters. It is hard to see how they would be well positioned to draw up ethical codes.

Furthermore, were the A.E.A. to engage with ethics, highly contentious issues would arise, such as the ethics of giving advice to non-democratic states. Until “Inside Job,” the most serious ethical debate that I know of within the profession was over advising Chile’s Pinochet regime.

One view was that providing advice to any regime that abused human rights was wrong. Another view was that providing economic advice was ethical, because it would improve the lives of the people living under the regime.

If the A.E.A. took either view on this thorny topic, the organization would have weakened itself dramatically, by creating conflict and alienating a significant fraction of its members. Another danger, which seems more likely, is that it might craft an excessively mild code of conduct that angers no one but sets too low a bar.

That might be worse than no code of conduct at all, providing shelter to people who engage in inappropriate behavior but assert they are abiding by the A.E.A. code.

However, the A.E.A. journals are a different matter. Current events have made clear that academic publications need disclosure rules as stringent as those applied by news organizations.

The A.E.A. is not only within its rights to issue ethical guidelines for publications, including the American Economic Review – good management demands that it do so. Requiring the disclosure of any relevant conflicts on the first page of an article seems like a sensible starting point.

If the A.E.A. takes the lead on disclosure rules for its journals, the professions’ other publications are likely to follow suit. I certainly wish that we had followed such a policy during my 10 years editing the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

What about disclosure in other contexts, such as non-refereed publications, speeches or comments to reporters? In these cases, universities – not the American Economic Association – are the natural ethical authority. (Full disclosure: I am just starting to serve on Harvard’s universitywide Standing Committee on Individual Financial Conflict of Interest).

Universities have the resources to develop ethical guidelines and the power to enforce them. They are the employers of academic economists, and ethical lapses damage them, too. They are the natural institutional guardians of their employees’ professional behavior.

The American Economic Association has successfully operated for 125 years, and part of its success comes from staying above the fray. Its primary purpose is to encourage the exchange of ideas through meetings and journals. It can and should regulate those journals better, but it doesn’t have the authority to try to regulate other aspects of economists’ lives. 


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