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Economics’ race (and other) problems

Summary:
There’s been much discussion in recent days about Economics’ race problem. Some of what has come out is quite disturbing. I have not said much, but I have listened and thought. Here are a few reflections I want to add. It doesn’t surprise me that the field, as a whole, reflects the ingrained attitudes and practices of the society of which it is part. But there are some features of the discipline that magnify and aggravate the problem. First, Economics is clubby. While good research does get recognized, the ability to produce good research depends on the networks one has access to. If you don’t start with those networks in place – a Ph.D. from a top department, a well-recognized advisor -- you start with a significant handicap that is difficult to overcome. Second, the field is very

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There’s been much discussion in recent days about Economics’ race problem. Some of what has come out is quite disturbing. I have not said much, but I have listened and thought. Here are a few reflections I want to add.

It doesn’t surprise me that the field, as a whole, reflects the ingrained attitudes and practices of the society of which it is part. But there are some features of the discipline that magnify and aggravate the problem.

First, Economics is clubby. While good research does get recognized, the ability to produce good research depends on the networks one has access to. If you don’t start with those networks in place – a Ph.D. from a top department, a well-recognized advisor -- you start with a significant handicap that is difficult to overcome.

Second, the field is very hierarchical. This means that even if you are in the right networks, you feel you are constantly being evaluated and ranked. Partly as a result, even top economists are a weirdly insecure bunch. This self-absorption reduces the generosity and mentoring that junior members of the profession receive.

Third, and let’s be honest, there are too many jerks in the discipline. Reputation hangs on your publications, and if you are doing well there relative to your peer group – which could be the profession as a whole or simply your own department – you can get away with a lot of awful personal behavior.   

Take all these together – the clubbiness, hierarchy, and jerk quotient – it is not surprising that so many people in the discipline, especially people of color and women, feel slighted and discriminated against. The only way things can change is by discussing these problems openly and instilling new norms of behavior, which is why the ongoing discussion is so important.

We all have responsibilities here--but change must start with senior scholars. I am grateful to all those who have spoken out – sometimes at some risk to their career – and made us all so much more conscious of the urgency of the task.      

Dani Rodrik
I am an economist, and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. My most recent book is Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science (Norton, 2015). I was born and grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. I still follow Turkish politics very closely, as you will find out if you spend any time with this blog.

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