Thursday, October 1, 2020

Political diversity at the AEA

Mitchell Langbert, writing in Econ Journal Watch documents the ratio of Democrat/Republican Party affiliation and campaign contributions in the American Economic Association. Here is the bottom line


The most interesting part of the paper that the AEA skews more and more Democrat as you look higher up the hierarchy to who has more influence in the organization. 

Members are only 3.8:1 D/R rather than 1.3:1 in the population. If you think all economists are heartless conservatives, you are wrong. My impression is, however, that this ratio is much more politically diverse than at other social science associations.  

As we move up to editors, authors, officers, the ratios rise, to reveal a nearly complete absence of Republicans in positions of power within the organization. 

As Mitchell puts it

There is no selection in mere membership apart from self-selection. Anyone can join, and some Republican voters do join. The players, however, are elevated in one way or another by the organization. The player categories are officers, editors, authors, book reviewers, and acknowledgees (those thanked in published acknowledgments)....The players are largely devoid of Republicans.

Editors are, in my view, the ones with the most discretionary power in a professional organization. They decide what gets published and what does not get published in the association's journals. They have, rightly in my view, great discretion in this decision. Finding innovative research and plowing through the fog generated by the refereeing process is difficult and important.  Second place goes to the president-elect who puts together the annual meeting schedule for the same reason.  

What to make of it? Well, facts are facts. The AEA plainly has almost no political diversity in its operational roles. The AEA's official statement on racial diversity states that a divergence in percentages between AEA membership and general population is proof of a "hostile" "climate," so perhaps the AEA should draw the same conclusion regarding political diversity. But I will not draw this conclusion. The social processes that produce political conformity are much more complex than that, and I still believe in the possibility of control variables, reverse casualty, selection bias, and all the other delicate issues that trouble causal inference in the social sciences. Maybe, as I'm sure some of you will say, Democrats are just plain right, Republicans deplorable, and anyone with a brain can see that. (Update: 3 hours later, and commenters already chimed in with that one.) AEA officers are elected by the membership, and people with big names in research from the top universities seem to win elections, along with big-name ex-public officials. (Ben Bernanke, R, and Janet Yellen, D, top examples.)  Editors are appointed. So this fact may simply be a reflection of the fact that the big-name saltwater departments skew Democrat, and their PhD students and personal network thus does the same. Maybe research that advocates new or expanded programs sells better than research that documents unintended consequences of existing programs. Add your own speculations. Since registration and campaign contribution data are public, these are easy hypotheses to check. It would also be interesting to see how other organizations, including the Econometric Society and SED stack up. 

Most obviously, nobody knows the party affiliation of AEA members when voting, appointing, etc. This paper had to put together the data. So, party affiliation is a correlate of something else, and the nature of that other thing should be the troubling question. 

For today, it is just a surprising fact to ponder.  

No, there are not a lot of independents and libertarians skewing the result. 

For readers who do not know,

The American Economic Association (AEA) is the most influential professional association of economists in the United States, and by extension the world. It publishes eight journals, which place highly in standard rankings. ... The AEA runs the Allied Social Science Associations Annual Meeting, which for professional economics is both the premier conference for researchers to show their work and the centerpiece of the academic job market. Those who oversee the AEA have a profound impact on the profession. Publication in AEA journals and executive roles in the AEA are coveted and important stepping stones in economists’ careers.

Update

A few correspondents remind me that I have been too kind to the AEA. Yes, there are elections, but the candidates are all selected by an AEA committee. There is no primary. (You can write in "suggestions" for the committee to consider for next year's ballot.) The candidate information offers no statement about what they wish to do for the AEA, it is just an academic bio. Jane got her PhD from Harvard in xx, taught at MIT from yy to zz, published so many articles in the American Economic Review, and so on. There is no place for a statement, "If elected, I will do x at the the AEA," whether that is "advance diversity goals," or "bring more openness, political and intellectual diversity to the organization." High school class president elections have more policy statements from the candidates. That this system produces more of the same from the same club is not that surprising. 

The system evolved when AEA service was uncontroversial, and really just a professional honor recognizing research accomplishments. That there is little correlation between research success and organizational ability didn't really matter. But the AEA is taking a much more active and activist role, so that system may have outlived its usefulness. 


30 comments:

  1. I am wondering if the US political dichotomy can really represent the true political diversity in a broader sense. I would guess many who contribute to the Democrats still hold a conservative policy view in some areas. After all, D/R is a binary decision which takes into account of a bundle of issues. And it's not surprising that more researchers turning to the D while the R appears more against the intellectual world.

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  2. The data may reflect the fact that economists who are Republican may not register as Republicans but as independents. They work in universities which demonize Republican views. Secondly, I'll bet that that the ratios will be lower for Financial Economists.

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  3. Raw data makes me nervous...

    It would help to have a baseline model that helps predict whether people are Republican or Democrat. For instance, what if a reason that most AEA editors are Democrat is that they primarily live in Democrat-dominated states? Ideally this model would take into account where people live (currently and potentially different stages of their lives), the political affiliation of their parents, an IQ proxy, and results from a five-factor personality test. You fit the model for a large random sample of the population, but then also gather the same data from the AEA members and use the model to adjust the raw numbers.

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  4. What holds for the AEA also holds for many other groups of educated people - the D:R ratio is greater than for the general population. I am a partner in a large law firm, and while we don't poll our people, I am certain we have a high D:R ratio. One can draw many conclusions, but the one I draw is that the Republican party is in intellectual trouble. If you declare elites to be your enemy, elites will return you the favor.

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  5. I am an academic, but academia is a place for wanna be central planners with very little chance of achieving success in the world. These people are all democrats.

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  6. The question is not whether an individual is a registered Democrat or a registered Republican, but whether that individual's political affiliation colors his or her work and the supervision of others over which he or she has some measure of control in terms of advancement or deployment.

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    1. That's what's scary. Republicans generally believe that people, including themselves, can operate fairly without bias. Democrats constantly harp on how everything is power and bias, there is no objective right and wrong, and people use whatever tactics they can to win. According to the Democratic ideology, they can't help but oppress Republicans if they have the power to do so. Whether they think they have the duty to do so is somewhat less clear.

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  7. One would also want to distinguish political affiliation for the purposes of voter registration from political alignment within the broad categories of "Democrat" and "Republican". Does the individual hew to the 'progressive' wing of the Democrats if a registered Democrat, or to the 'ultra-libertarian' or 'ultra-nationalist' wing (if there is such a thing) of the Republicans if a registered Republican? The further out, 'left' or 'right', on the political 'spectrum' an individual is, the greater the chance that his or her political leaning will color the individual's work or the management of the work of others that the individual is charged with supervising.

    Raw statistics, such as those presented in the blog post, reveal little save for the location of most of the economics practitioners' domicile and place of employment.

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  8. My father graduated from university with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1943 and went directly to war upon his graduation.

    His generation was not adverse to making cutting remarks about anything or anyone who drew their ire for uttering some useless or inane remark about a practical matter. The response to that person was usually, "Those that can, do; those that can't, teach."

    Here we have in the statistics presented above, an example of the occupations that in my father's generation would have been regarded as the workplaces of "Those who can't."

    It was a generation whose judgements tended to be harsh, and terse. But then they grew up in the Depression, and went to war in Europe or Asia or North Africa, and knew hardship and death at first hand. Quite unlike the majority of people living today.

    "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Not politically correct by a long chalk. But apt, in specific circumstances.

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    1. Exactly true. Democrats tend to have low skills... So they specialize in rent seeking activities: Politicians, lawyers, heavily regulated businesses. They are also concentrated in activities that people do not value, such as ``artists'', and the likes.

      As Sowell says, Democrats cannot exist in areas in which there is a right and a wrong answer. There are not that many in engineering for example. Economics is much closer to sociology in this aspect.

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    2. John, I thought you were supposed to be blocking totally inane comments?

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    3. How did this low-effort comment by "Not a democrat" make it past moderation?

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  9. I belong to the Democratic party; at least respect what we wish to be called.

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  10. If I may offer the following suggestion - academic economists spend their research lives finding all sorts of ways the classical model is wrong and what policies can be done to change it. That sort of tinkering and engineering naturally skews Democrat.

    I really think that public facing economists would do better to stress the virtues of the free market; because it only makes AOC and Bernie more justified in their criticism of free markets.

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    1. Yes, but here you have the conundrum. A new possible market failure and how the omniscient planner can fix it is a novel research paper, gets you published and tenure. A new government failure, a puzzle solved, how Adam Smith was right all along if you just work hard enough, doesn't count as novel research. There is a lot of "stress the virtues of the free market" writing out there. It just doesn't count as novel academic research, at least in the eyes of those who judge what counts as novel academic research.

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    2. John I may be overreaching here, but it is up to the old guard like you who can convince the next generation not to fall into this trap.

      A good economist/statistician/data scientist starts with a cogent theory that maps out all of the logical consequences before taking it to the data - always aware of the pitfalls and misleading breadcrumb trails that await. I happened to have a very circumspect econometrics teacher which has served me well. But...sadly, I feel that is not the norm in todays world.

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  11. This is interesting, and I would think lends credence to the idea that rising to the top of organizations is not very meritocratic. When people talk about diversity (within reason) they often are trying to prevent this drift away from organizations being somewhat representative of their members. As a minority in this case perhaps this will help you relate to those who think affirmative action in some cases is worthwhile, even if you disagree that equal outcomes is a good framework. It's always good to take the other side's position seriously and with a modicum of respect, even if not everyone does so.

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  12. The results do not surprise me, given I at least sample articles in the many AEA publications. My further impression is that over time the skewness has become more pronounced. 'Twould be interesting to know whether this is true or not, and then of course, to figure out why.

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  13. Democratic, and ossifying at the same time around globalist, interventionist politico-economic positions.




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  14. If I were a Republican and an academic (excluding at somewhere like Liberty University) in any field, I would not want people to know I was a Republican, and would avoid donating to the party just to avoid outing myself. I think there's peer-reviewed research finding hiring bias against conservative applicants in academia, so the idea that being a known Republican is bad for your career isn't just anecdotal.

    So except for older, tenured faculty who are no longer working their way up the latter and don't expect to move to a new institution, maybe are near retirement, I'd almost say it's foolish to out oneself as a card carrying Republican. Anonymous polls of policy position or ideological association would be more informative. That said, I still think the vast majority AEA members would lean left, but the composition might be a bit more diverse than the the D/R ratio for contributions implies.

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  15. I initially wondered if it was a Trump effect, but the earlier work of McEachern cited in the introduction suggests not, or at least not primarily.

    So interesting, and to me at least, somewhat surprising. But as CY has mentioned, I'd bet the same exercise at the AFA would look a bit different.

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  16. I'd love to see the time series. I was die-hard R until post-Newt when the Rs went nuts. Also I look at all the registered Ds and wonder if is is my Chicago friends registering strategically, i.e., register R to vote in primaries for weak stupid candidates.

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  17. John, can you control for education in the baseline D:R population estimate? That could be helpful.
    And, how do they treat non-US citizen economists?

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  18. Maybe, just maybe, more educated people, are less likely to support someone who, instead of condemning, asks white supremacist to stand by.

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    1. Any evidence that the Proud Boys are white supremacist, or are you just trying to libel political rivals?

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  19. I'm told the only possible reason for divergent outcomes among groups is structural bias. Mystery solved.

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  20. At my institution as the university's finances have crashed the number of diversity/racial bias bureaucrats, and training seminars on systemic racism etc. have soared. It's very Alice in Wonderland. I wonder if the AEA's turn is a substitute for, you know, actually doing something about disappearing faculty jobs?

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  21. Dear John, here is another interesting statistic: the D/R ratio is 1.3:1 in the population, but only 0.89:1 in the US Senate (although 15 million more have voted for D than for R Senators), 0:1 in the US Presidency (although the R candidate lost the popular vote), and 0.5:1 in the Supreme Court (in terms of justices nominated by D/R President). The consequences of this misrepresentation of the population in different branches of government (thanks to that archaic institution, the Electoral College), are much more serious for the American Republic than the political composition of AEA membership. But I don't see you worrying about that. Greetings, Alexander from Chicago.

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    1. President changes more often, as we are likely to soon see. “You didn’t talk about x unrelated issue “ is poor rhetoric and logic. C+

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