“What We Do” in Economics

Twenty plus years ago, I was chatting with a friend who was a faculty member in the Harvard economics department while we were watching our sons play in a soccer game.  I had asked him what, if anything, the department was doing about the lack of racial diversity among its faculty.  He acknowledged the problem but commented that there was a very sparse supply of African American economists.

I asked, “What about Andrew Brimmer?” Brimmer, who died in the early fall of 2012, had been the first African American on the Federal Reserve Board. He had received his doctorate from Harvard Business School in 1957, had published professional articles in highly regarded economics journals, had served in various government advisory boards here and abroad, and had even been on the faculty of HBS for a couple of years. It all added up to distinguished career as an economist.

My friend met my question about Brimmer with the comment, “Oh, well, he doesn’t do what we do.”

I don’t recall more of our conversation, but I do recall that I was stunned by this comment. Isn’t a central point of diversity to get people who don’t “do what we do”? There is, of course, no automatic connection between the color of one’s skin and one’s approach to economic issues. But there is little doubt that on a broad level there is a connection between personal experiences—and certainly race affects personal experiences—and how one approaches economic and social issues.

Brimmer was born the child of Louisiana sharecroppers. In 1973, while still a member of the Federal Reserve Board, he told the New York Times, “I do feel that the economic plight of blacks is a serious matter.  So I bring the same economist’s tool kit to that subject as other economists bring to examine other national economic problems.”

In my experience at Harvard many years ago, Brimmer’s issues were not totally absent from the agenda of members of the faculty, but neither were they priorities. He did not “do what we do.”

In the past few decades some things have changed both at Harvard and in the economics profession generally. But there has been only limited attention paid to the issues that were so important to Brimmer. There has also been minimal opening to alternative ideological approaches—and, don’t kid yourself, economics is a highly ideological field.

The narrowness of economics, the insistence on doing “what we do,” has had some substantial implications. Working within relatively narrow ideological confines, the great majority of economists at Harvard and elsewhere missed the development of the severe financial crisis that emerged in 2007-2008. And as best I can tell, there has been no serious self-examination by the economics profession regarding its failure to see the storm coming. Indeed, some prominent economists have simply denied that events of the last decade indicate anything is wrong in the profession!

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was part of a group of “radical” junior faculty members and graduate students in the Harvard economics department who tried to introduce some alternative ways of dealing with economic issues. We saw ourselves as connected to the widespread upheaval of social movements in that era: the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and anti-poverty struggles. More than anything else, I think what defined our approach and what differentiated us from the mainstream of economics was that we tried to bring issues of political and social power into our analyses of economic issues

I hardly need to say that we did not last long at Harvard. Our approach to economics was not welcomed by a majority of the senior faculty in the department of economics. Regardless of the formal expertise of some members of our group, on an ideological level all of us failed to “do what we do.”

By and large, now as then, when economists do recognize our society’s economic problems, they see those problems as calling at most for some adjustments around the edges. Economic ills are dealt with as technical difficulties. Issues of power are pretty much absent from the discussion. We tried to bring issues of power to the forefront 40-some years ago, and we are still trying.

The current doldrums of the U.S. economy and the extreme economic inequality that has emerged in the last few decades are forcing some changes in the way most people who aren’t economists look at things. The Occupy Wall Street movement forced inequality and power onto the public agenda. Maybe the economics profession will get the message.  Maybe at Harvard and elsewhere economists will realize that there may be some value in not doing “what we do.”

Arthur MacEwan is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He was faculty member in the Harvard department of economics from 1968 to 1975. His most recent book is Economic Collapse, Economic Change: Getting to the Roots of the Crisis (2011).

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