Monday, July 4, 2022

Letter to the AEA

A group of economists recently posted a petition to the American Economic Association, that it move its annual meetings away from New Orleans this year and Texas next year, because of those states' abortion laws. If you're an economist interested in our -- so far -- leading professional society, you should read and consider the whole petition.  It has of course attracted a lot of attention on social media 

Excerpts, so you get the central idea: 

Louisiana’s ban on abortion... makes it illegal to obtain an abortion in Louisiana and criminalizes healthcare providers who perform abortions. ...These restrictions on healthcare place an undue, differential burden on young women in the economics profession, who are forced to balance the risk of needing medical care unavailable in Louisiana with their professional obligation to attend the Annual Meetings...

The AEA bylaws state the our organization “will take no partisan attitude, nor will it commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.” However, the health and human rights of pregnant AEA members transcend partisanship. Economists who are pregnant or might become pregnant have an equal right to participate in our Annual Meetings without facing disproportionate health risks.

To protect the health and wellbeing of all AEA members, I encourage the Executive Committee to relocate the 2023 and 2024 meetings, and to commit to holding future meetings in states where women’s rights to necessary pregnancy care are protected.

I participated in an effort with a group of economists to write a letter to the AEA Executive Committee opposing this move, which is below and is the point of this blog post. 

I emphasize this letter has nothing to do with abortion. I favor of  free abortion access. Our objection is to the AEA going deeper down the rabbit hole of politics in either direction. 

I do not think there is any danger that the AEA will actually move its meetings. The executive committee is pretty sensible. However, there is a danger that the AEA will feel moved to issue additional statements of its support for political causes, and instructions to its members on how we all should feel and act. I hope the letter will nudge the AEA back to an a-political role, and to focus on the great current danger: increasing restrictions on academic freedom, and the rush to conformity and exclusion on political, ideological, or even economic matters. I also hope the AEA leadership will become a bit more aware of the wide diversity of views of its membership, and strive to become more inclusive. There are actual (gasp) Republicans. There are quite a few Catholics. A scientific professional organization must be much more open than organizations who are founded to advance particular causes. 

And that is my purpose in sharing the letter publicly. It is up to all of us to nudge our professional organizations to activities we value. If you browse the AEA website, or read the statements of its new officers you get a sense of where it is going. If you think different activities are important, such as defending academic freedom, then speak up. 

I salute the petition writers however. This is exactly what the Court had in mind in sending abortion back to the states. They must be watching the attention to state laws and state legislatures with pride. Go for it. There are many organizations that will help channel your advocacy for changing Louisiana's and Texas' abortion laws; Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and many more. If you go to Louisiana, bring a sign and organize a protest.  As a supporter of abortion rights, I would like to see state legislatures squirm, and at least to think through their laws more clearly. They are now the dog that caught the car. If you favor abortion restrictions, there are plenty of organizations that will help you to express those views as well, and bring pressure on state legislators. 

But not every organization needs to be bent to one view of every cause. The AEA must be a diverse and inclusive organization, focused on its narrow goal. 

The letter: 

****

Dear AEA executive committee:

We write regarding the petition to move the ASSA meetings away from New Orleans this year, Texas in 2024, and avoid similar locations in the future. We encourage you to resist the temptation of doing so.

This ought to be a layup. The AEA bylaws state that the association “will take no partisan attitude, nor will it commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.”  The petition is a clear attempt to boycott states based on their abortion laws. 

Yes, the petition claims the health of AEA attendees is at risk. But that claim is a transparent subterfuge. The chance that an AEA member needs abortion care during the three-day meeting and cannot get it due to Louisiana’s restrictions is essentially zero. The Louisiana law has been blocked, rendering any danger even less likely.  The petitioners present no evidence otherwise. Moreover, there are many health risks to attendees, but the AEA does not routinely survey host cities for the availability of hospitals, emergency rooms, quality of stroke or heart attack care, kinds of health insurance accepted, and so forth. 

Even if you believe there is a health risk, genuinely dissociated from your and members’ political views, you should recognize that this move will be universally perceived as a political boycott. 

Now you may feel that state-level abortion restrictions are such a vital issue that the AEA should break its bylaws to proceed with this boycott. However strongly you feel, we urge you not to do so, and to take this opportunity to strengthen the AEA’s status as an apolitical organization whose central mission is the advancement of economic science. 

 We stress that this recommendation is not about abortion. Our views on the matter vary, including some who support very lenient restrictions. 

The AEA rightly has never taken a stand on important economic issues of the day, and except for the George Floyd statement and reading list, has never taken a stand on important moral, social, or political issues, including the red scare, the Vietnam War, and others. Now is not the time to start. 

The first reason is diversity and inclusion, which have become mainstays of the AEA’s objectives. Diversity and inclusion include diversity of political affiliation, religious belief, and ideological orientation. People of different views must feel welcome, especially in a professional scientific organization.

Now it is likely that a majority of AEA members favor less restrictive abortion laws than those of Louisiana. Studies of the AEA find that AEA members are 3.8:1 Democrat/Republican, with AEA officers and editors 8:1, compared to a general population 1.3:1. Though not all Democrats are of one mind on abortion, these numbers suggest that a majority of the AEA membership supports a broad set of abortion rights—though perhaps not as uniformly as AEA leadership. 

But diversity and inclusion are the antitheses of imposing the majority’s political, moral, or ideological views. How would those members who support abortion restrictions, or merely the right of the citizens of Louisiana to vote democratically on this contentious issue feel if the AEA tells them that their views on this topic are so beyond the pale that the AEA cannot have a meeting in any state with restrictive abortion laws? 

Diversity and inclusion by political and ideological orientation and religious belief intersects with the racial and gender categories on which the AEA has placed more focus. Many Hispanics, Blacks, and women oppose abortion. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 40% of Hispanics, 27% of Blacks, and 35% of women state that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Are they additionally unwelcome in the AEA? In any diversity effort, it is imperative to emphasize that views of under-represented minorities may be heterogenous, and differ from the views of incumbent leadership in many unexpected ways.

The second reason is the precedent that this move will create. Suppose we accept the argument that the AEA cannot hold the meetings in Louisiana, and even the safety rationale. Then, what about states such as Texas or Arizona where non-U.S. citizen attendees may be at risk? Dreamers, undocumented immigrants, and foreign students with visa issues exist in our membership too. What about state and city gun regulations? AEA members have in the past been victims of robberies and other crimes at meetings. Members may feel unsafe in cities with easy standards for gun ownership. Others may feel unsafe that a city or state restricts their legal gun ownership. Some may feel unsafe that city police departments disproportionately target minorities, or that that are not enforcing gun laws, solving murders, and allowing too much crime. When we recognize this is a boycott, members may want to boycott cities whose public schools disastrously hurt the disadvantaged, or whose environmental or building policies they disagree with.  The list is endless. 

You should also consider the consequences. If you start boycotting red states, their legislatures may well forbid public universities from recruiting at AEA meetings and paying for conference attendance.  

Acceding to this petition will have a chilling effect on our entire profession. The outstanding catastrophe in contemporary academia is the increasing restriction on speech, academic freedom, freedom of inquiry, and the rise of political coercion. More and more students and young faculty especially are afraid to speak, to research contentious topics or to reveal religious and political affiliation, or other indicators of unpopular opinion. As a professional scientific organization, the AEA should loudly champion and defend diversity of research, opinion, expression, and inquiry for all our members. 

As we said, this ought to be a layup. You should respond that you do not see a quantitatively important danger to the safety of participants, and take the opportunity to stress that the AEA is not political, and that support for diversity, inclusion and free expression of different views is central to its mission.  We trust that you figured this out already, but perhaps our thoughts can help to steel your nerves and sharpen your response.  

As a sign of the problems pointed out in this letter, some signatories are concerned of professional repercussions if their view is known in public. We ask for your discretion not to forward this letter beyond your committee or to broadcast its signatories. This is a private letter to you, not a petition. 

Sincerely, 

[Signatures] 

******

Yes, at the request of quite a few people, we do not divulge names to anyone but the AEA committee. A sign of the times, and the main issue confronting academic economics which our professional organizations are completely ignoring. The signatories did OK my publicizing the contents of the letter. 

Happy 4th of July to all. It's a good day to celebrate our messy chaotic democracy, approaching 250 years. 

Update: In response to the comment below. Since this is not a public letter or petition, it's really not set up to add signatures. The best way to show support for these ideas is to write the AEA Executive Committee members directly. And tweet or rebroadcast on your favorite social media. 


29 comments:

  1. Eventually it all collapses down to ethos...just a matter of when.

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    1. Why is the AEA Exec. wants to force its views on all of us? I support abortion if the woman wants it for any reason; but I resent being told where to go to do what.

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  2. Great. What state is pure of thought and action that it warrants consideration as the seat of an AEA meeting?

    I am sorry that a few too many women can't figure out how to operate a birth control device, but why blame and punish those seeking to maintain the chosen course of action once the choice has been made

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    1. In all fairness, this is not about not knowing how to operate a birth control device, it's about being pregnant, having a complication that puts your life at risk, and not being able to get an abortion to save your life due to abortion regulations in a particular state. Having said that, it seems to me that this is a very unlikely situation. As I have read on twitter, it might be more likely to be physically assaulted than needing an emergency medical procedure of this type. Therefore, this seems to be a political move by certain AEA members that are pushing for an AEA more aligned with the left. Sad.

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    2. As most abortion undertakings do not involve rape, incest or a life saving operation, that is about 98% of them, this is mostly about a failure of so many men and women to prevent the most preventable outcome of sex. How can this be in a world in which sex and pregnancy are ubiquitously documented and discussed?

      Most women chose to get pregnant whether by willful act or omission. They should abide by that choice as a life depends upon it.

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    3. It is certainly *not* about “having a complication that puts your life at risk, and not being able to get an abortion to save your life due to abortion regulations.” None — not even the most restrictive states’ abortion laws — lack exceptions for the physical health of the pregnant person. Abortions can be performed in any hospital; a clinic that specializes in abortions is not only not required, but in cases where the abortion is being performed due to risk to the womb-haver’s life, a hospital is probably a preferred setting.

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  3. John, is there a place we can sign? I highly doubt the views expressed here are in the minority and would be nice to reflect in the letter.

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  4. I just shared that on Twitter and appended a whole thread of comment to it. The nonsense has to stop at some point and, if it turns off potential employer when my PhD is done, that's called dodging a bullet.

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    1. I salute your courage.

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  5. The issue is not the issue. The issue is the revolution. [Columbia University, 1968?]

    Alas, I cannot help, for I dropped out of the AEA over a year ago, at least a year too late.

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  6. "Now it is likely that a majority of AEA members favor less restrictive abortion laws than those of Louisiana. Studies of the AEA find that AEA members are 3.8:1 Democrat/Republican, with AEA officers and editors 8:1, compared to a general population 1.3:1. Though not all Democrats are of one mind on abortion, these numbers suggest that a majority of the AEA membership supports a broad set of abortion rights—though perhaps not as uniformly as AEA leadership."

    Yeah, well, by average university standards, the AEA is clearly an extreme right wing organization! Still, I won't rejoin. :-)

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  7. These woke people won't stop woking. Wokeriahs! What is the correlation between a state's stance on abortion and a quick 3-day conference? Will stricter abortion laws cause conference participants to become pregnant in 3 days, which will then expose them to harm because the abortion law is strict? Ridiculous.

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    1. It's not an issue of wokism if only because that applies only to a small minority of very radical progressives, but progressives, liberals and many moderates, conservstives and libertarians support some form of access to abortion.

      The problem is people seem to have gotten to a point where they want all social insitutions to take political stances. Even if it is partly due to woke people or even some MAGA people "shooting theit own moderates" as Jonathan Haidt would put it, you're not looking at a problem caused by woke people.

      Still, if we went by not attending conference because rights are denied and the AEA was of the same fairly libertarian mind as professor Cochrane here, they'd have to host it outside of the US. Blue states violate individual rights and liberties too. Or if the pro-life side dominated the profession, they could just ask why we're allowing the conference take place in states that condone murder?

      So, why this issue only? Can't I or others invoke other widely held principles too? I am afraid the only line on which we could agree without bias is the line where the AEA is Switzerland.

      If the AEA starts doing this, everyone else should start demanding they act on their pet project. Flood them. Turn it into a Tower of Babel. I mean, why not? I have an answer for why not that is somewhat fair -- do it for no one. Those who demand action do not have a limiting principle that could be sold to the other side of their demand.

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  8. The AEA has become another social engineering community activist organization. It is not a professional organization any more. Gone are the days when Frank Knight, Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson were presidents of the AEA. How sad.

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    1. Yes, but perhaps it's not too different from its roots. It's founders were a bunch of progressives. While Richard T Ely was a racist, John R. Commons was a eugenicist. Contemporary neo-marxism is no different, just the sign is reversed.

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    2. I'm reminded (constantly, it seems) of the pithy David Burge comment re: the downfall of professional organizations: 1) Identify a respected institution 2) Kill it. 3) Gut it. 4) Wear it's carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect. I hope the AEA does not repeat...

      https://twitter.com/iowahawkblog/status/664089892599631872?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E664089892599631872%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Florenzo-thinkingoutaloud.blogspot.com%2F2019%2F02%2F

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  9. What if signatories had simply stated that as a matter of deeply held personal belief, they will not attend an in person meeting in either Louisiana or Texas because of the restrictions those states place on a women’s right to choose. Period. No throat clearing preamble. No further justification. No appeal for the AEA to do anything in particular.

    Based upon the fraction of attendees that pledge not to attend in person in such states, the AEA leadership can then make a business decision as how to proceed.

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  10. Hi John -

    I generally agree with you, but not this time. I may not agree with the exact wording of the letter, but agree with the spirit.

    Twice I have presented at ASSA meetings while pregnant. I would not have done so if it meant traveling to a place which restricted my ability to get appropriate medical care in case of an emergency. And which, in the case of Texas and Miss., are places where authorities would do everything they could to restrict my ability to travel somewhere to get appropriate care.

    Having the meetings in these states is yet another signal to women in the econ profession that we really don't matter.

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    1. That's not a particularly convincing argument. Women are not continually pregnant and, even if it happened, it could be accomodated by allowing them to share their work online.

      It's not a message that women do not matter. It's an issue of the question being highly divisive and siding either way will invariably politicize the association.

      Enough damage as been done to public trust in professional associations and public institutions in western countries not to leverage exceptional circumstances to just bow down to the political demands of one faction.

      Besides, what would your solution say? That most conservatives and anyone living in red states are not welcome? Why is your remark any more valid than this one?

      Fact is, if we keep this up, there won't be anything less but politicized messes everywhere and no real economic science to speak of. But, if YOU want to boycott events perdonally and in your own name, do it. If you want others to do it in their own names, convince them to do it.

      I think it's a very bad idea to fragment everything over policy disagreements, but you are free to do as you please.

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    2. The probability of this ocurrence is so small that providing this as an excuse insults the intelligence. Pure and simple.

      The hypothetical they are refering to, has never happened and it is extremely unlikely to happen all of the sudden in the course of a 3 days meeting. An if any AEA pregnant member has a high-risk prenancy, she should not be travelling to any state.

      After all, there is more risk for pregnant women in riding a car, travelling by plane, walking on the street on St Louis, Jackson, Detroit, New Orleans or Baltimore (the most dangerous american cities), ....

      This insulting of the inteligence is frankly insufferable.

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  11. Dear Stephanie:
    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here, and both politely and eloquently. FYI, for the moment the Louisiana law is stayed in court, there are no travel restrictions even announced or contemplated, and they are plainly unconstitutional. If Louisiana were actively preventing emergency care during pregnancies, and preventing people from traveling to obtain care, I might well change my mind on this.

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    1. It's not just abortions which these states are attempting to limit. It's any medical treatment with even a small chance of hurting a fetus. So a pregnant woman is now or soon will unable to get many standard medical treatments.

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    2. That is very difficult to believe but let's take your worry at face value.
      The relevant question is what are the combined chances of:
      a: An AEA female member being pregnant
      b: The pregnant AEA female member deciding to attend the conference
      c: This pregnant AEA female member feeling well enough to decide to attend the conference on day "n" (the day travelling to New Orleans) but having a complication on day n+1, n+2 or n+3 (assuming a 3 day conference)
      d: This complication requiring a treatment with even a small chance of hurting the fetus
      e: The physician in charge of making that decision (not performing the treatment base on the possibility of being held legally responsible of a not-yet-but-maybe-soon-forbiden act) beign willing to risk the wellness (or even the life) of the mother

      Let's do a quick calculation with the following possibilities:
      a) The pregnancy rate among women 35 years of age or older (AEA members attending the conference are very likely older but just for the sake of the calculation): 75/1000
      https://www.guttmacher.org/report/pregnancies-births-abortions-in-united-states-1973-2017
      b) Let's say 75% (assuming AEA female members are willing to face any discomfort to attend the conference)
      c) Let's say 5% (8% is the rate of complications during pregnancy taking into account that the complication has to be "sudden" 5% should be a pretty safe estimate)
      https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/staying-healthy-during-pregnancy/4-common-pregnancy-complications#:~:text=Most%20pregnancies%20progress%20without%20incident,occur%20unexpectedly%20and%20are%20unavoidable.
      d) No clue, but let's say 80% (clearly on the safe side)
      e) Again no clue .., but more than 2/3 of pediatricians (and, I assume, ginecologists) are democrats. Let's say 50%

      Well, the combine probability will be in this case: 1 in 1,000 and this is, very likely, an upper boundary

      You should be kidding, rigth?

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    3. You forgot to multiply this probability by the number of women attending an AEA conference. The question should be whether the situation arises at all, not whether it arises to one randomly selected female attendee.

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  12. Where is the data? For AEA meetings:
    Have there been any pregnancies requiring an abortion to save the woman's life? (my guess is no, Stephanie C notwithstanding)
    Have there been any heart attacks?
    Are smokers welcome?
    Are those who are overweight, or obese, or morbidly obese, welcome?

    How many attendees have actually died during meetings? How?
    (my guess is car accidents would be highest reason, with heart attacks #2)

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  13. Let me be sure I understand: to ensure Louisiana AEA members who claim to be women can more easily attend the convention, the convention is being moved *out* of Louisiana?

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  14. I don't fully agree with what you've written but do see the concerns (e.g., precedent, consequences, etc.) you raise. Offering a virtual option might be a solution - they'd be able to present papers/discuss papers/attend sessions but miss out on the in-person interactions (which could be made up for in subsequent meetings).

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    1. Virtual option sounds like a good and inclusive step for all sorts of reasons -- many health concerns, including Covid which is still with us -- along with other reasons not to want to travel.

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