Frankfurt The “Chicago Boys”, economists at the University of Chicago, have suddenly become the focus of a discussion about racism in economics. The faculty is the figurehead of market radicals and the faculty with the most Nobel Prizes in Economics. She is also an eternal enemy of the “saltwater economists” from the east coast and California, with the well-known economist and publicist Paul Krugman as one of the harshest critics.
A German economist, of all people, triggered the turmoil. In the midst of protests against the violent death of Black George Floyd by a police officer in late May, macroeconomist Harald Uhlig, who has been teaching in Chicago since 2007, provoked blog posts and Twitter comments. In it, he compared the Black Lives Matter organization to people who think the earth was flat and football players who protested against discrimination by kneeling down to someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood.
That brought him a storm of indignation. Among other things, the East Coast economists Krugman and Justin Wolfers, with their large following in the social and established media, called for consequences from the University of Chicago, where Uhlig is co-editor of the journal “Journal of Political Economy” (JPE). JPE is one of the five most influential economy journals.
Krugman and Yellen against Uhlig
Even former President of the Federal Reserve and current president of the American Economic Association, Janet Yellen, wrote that Uhlig’s tweets and blog posts were extremely irritating and “it would be appropriate for the University of Chicago to continue Uhlig’s performance and suitability to act as editor of the JPE. “
Racism has been a top priority for the economists’ association since a poll last autumn showed that almost half of African-American economists reported discriminatory treatment based on their skin tone.
In an interview with the New York Times, Uhlig apologized for his words and comparisons and claimed that he detested racism. The interview was hardly printed, so the past caught up with him – in the form of a tweet.
An accusation of racism from the past
On June 11, African-American economics professor Bokar Ba tweeted to Uhlig that he had been in his class in 2014 when Uhlig first made derogatory comments about African-American idol Martin Luther King and then sarcastically approached him to ask whether he might have hurt anyone’s feelings with it.
The very next day, the Federal Reserve Bank Chicago suspended Uhlig’s advisory services and the JPE temporarily suspended its editor-in-chief of the magazine.
The Chicago economist John Cochrane wrote on his blog: “The Twitter mob has taken over the economy” and heavily criticized Krugman, Wolters and Yellen for their role in this “witch hunt” for economists with unpopular opinions. The Hamburg economist Thomas Straubhaar described the “throw-out” as “summit of hypocrisy”.
However, it was not thrown out. On June 22, the University of Chicago announced that the review of Uhlig’s behavior had revealed “there is no basis for further investigation.” Therefore, the JPE Uhlig reinstated in its role as editor.
Wide indignation over an attachment
The issue of racism for Chicago and the JPE is not over. Since the journal announced on June 15 that the Randomizing Religion article was accepted for publication, the authors, journal, and the ethics committees responsible for it have been fighting violent allegations. There is talk of subliminal racism and colonialist thinking.
The article describes a so-called controlled field experiment (RCT) with particularly poor people in the Philippines. The selected, mostly Catholic Filipinos were randomly divided into different groups. One sub-group was allowed to enjoy the full program of a missionary evangelical organization. Others were only offered either the part on religious education, the part on health and practical skills, or no program at all.
By means of comparison, the economic researchers wanted to find out whether Protestant religious education is suitable for strengthening poor people’s willingness to work and perseverance and thus alleviating poverty.
The authors come from the environment of last year’s Nobel Prize in Economics Ester Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. One of the authors, Dean Karlan, is himself a very renowned researcher in the field of controlled field experiments.
Mission as development policy
The authors found that the subjects “missionally treated” had a slightly higher income than members of the respective comparison groups six months after the end of the program, but cannot rule out that the measured effect is due to secondary circumstances of the religious courses. Consumption levels, food security, job performance and life satisfaction were not higher, and perceived socio-economic status was even lower than among the subjects who were not being missionized.
Despite this, as they put it, “mixed evidence,” the authors conclude: “This church-based program could be a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and thus reducing poverty among adults in developing countries.”
The fact that missioning is being promoted here as a development policy, and this also on a weak evidence basis, caused incredulous horror among many scientists.
“The key question has its roots in colonialism and a western savior complex, and in arguments that attribute poverty to a ‘culture of poverty’,” tweeted assistant professor of sociology Landon Schnabel.
However, the Yale elite university ethics committee had no concerns about the mission experiment and even waved the project through in an accelerated process because it was unproblematic.
The assessment of the colored South African economics professor Seán Muller is completely different. “The very idea that missionary conversion could be a legitimate approach to increasing the poorest incomes is an insult,” he comments. To conclude this in a supposedly scientific study is an absurdity that can only be caused by completely ignoring structural and historical factors. “
Muller extends his criticism to the controlled field experiments as a whole, which are mostly carried out on “black and brown people in poor parts of the world”, under ethical standards that are far below what is the norm in richer and fair-skinned parts of the world.
The Norwegian development economist Ingrid Kvangraven also criticizes that the authors seek the causes of poverty in inadequacies of the poor instead of recognizing the structural causes of poverty. In addition, the colonial dimension of the attempt to ignore poor people through religion is more endurance and willingness to perform bring up.
She also criticized that the subjects were not informed that they were part of an experiment and therefore could not have given informed consent.
The fact that there is no work from or about the Philippines in the bibliography shows an attitude that the only reliable knowledge is that of the global north, even when it comes to the lives of people in other parts of the world.
The authors defend themselves.
Choi, Byran and Karlan replied in detail to the allegations on request. “We appreciate the ethical comments we have received,” they write. “You have prompted us to discuss some of these issues in the final, published version of the article.” You would have done many such field experiments, but have never had this type of response.
They emphasize that no one has been invited to such a program because of their research. This program and many others have been around for a long time. Regardless of how you feel about it, it is valuable to research whether they help or harm the world’s poor.
Regarding informed consent, the researchers claimed that the standards for such studies had been adhered to and that the ethics committees had also confirmed this. Informed consent had been obtained before data was queried. Since the participants were free to decide whether to accept the invitation to one of the courses, it was not necessary to inform them that they were also participating in a field experiment. “We followed the norms in our field, but the norms may have to change,” they concede.
The three decidedly reject the accusation that they implicitly assigned responsibility for their poverty to the poor. “It is easily possible for programs to help people be less poor without saying that their poverty is their own fault,” they write. Their investigation of the specific mission program does not support this program, they reply to Muller’s accusation that their research approach is an insult to poor people with dark skin.
The research results could only be correctly interpreted in the light of Filipino history and society. But it is common understanding among economic researchers that one does not have to expand this context in every article. “This is how economists come up with essays that are stringent and try relatively narrowly to answer a limited question.”
When criticized for ignoring the historical role and colonial context of religion and mission in the Philippines, which was first a Spanish, then an American colony, the researchers responded by pointing out that International Care Ministries (ICM), the organization, who runs the program under study was founded in 1992 by Filipino pastors.
This reference to the organization’s Filipino roots is misleading in this context. If you look at the ICM website, you will find a dominant presence of the former colonial power USA.
The chairman of the board (supervisory board) is David Sutherland, the ICM since 1999, during his managerial time at Morgan Stanley, from a small startup to an organization with a $ 10 million budget. Sutherland is also one of the six global team leaders, along with Deanne Sutherland and Dale Sutherland, as well as a professor in Canada and one from New York’s Columbia University.
Discrimination is not a journal issue
Harald Uhlig was asked by the New York Times interviewer how often in his time as editor of the JPE he had suggested or accepted articles dealing with skin color discrimination. He couldn’t remember ever having one for review.
There appears to be a problem beyond the University of Chicago. For example, Shelly Lindberg, economics professor in California, took part in the discussion on racism in economics on Twitter with her own experience.
With Dick Startz, she has submitted a paper on the persistence of skin inequality to the Quarterly Journal of Economics, another top-tier journal published by Harvard University. The expert described it as an important article that should be published. The publisher, however, rejected it and scolded the authors for their “overheated rhetoric” because they assumed that methods of holding the colored people down would still be widely used after the end of slavery.
What is meant is the article “Information and Racial Exclusion”, which appeared in 2007 in the much less renowned “Journal of Population Economics”.
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