The cancel culture twitter mob comes to economics
Last week we learned the twitter mob has taken over economics too.In case you aren’t following, here is the short version of the story. Harald Uhlig, a distingushed macroeconomist at the University of Chicago, sent out a few tweets questioning the wisdom of quickly "defunding the police." The twitter mob, led by Paul Krugman and Justin Wolfers, swiftly attacked. A petition circulated, reportedly gaining 500 signatories, demanding his removal as editor of the Journal of Political Economy. I saw an astonishing number of tweets from economists that I formerly respected and considered to be level headed, fact-and-logic, cause-and-effect analysts of public policies pile on. The media piled on, with coverage at New York Times, Wall Street Journal Chicago Tribune and a bit of a counterpoint at Fox News, Breitbart National Review and others. By Friday, the University of Chicago caved in and threw Harald under the bus.Start by actually reading Harald’s tweets.Harold criticizes…
In case you aren’t following, here is the short version of the story. Harald Uhlig, a distingushed macroeconomist at the University of Chicago, sent out a few tweets questioning the wisdom of quickly “defunding the police.” The twitter mob, led by Paul Krugman and Justin Wolfers, swiftly attacked. A petition circulated, reportedly gaining 500 signatories, demanding his removal as editor of the Journal of Political Economy. I saw an astonishing number of tweets from economists that I formerly respected and considered to be level headed, fact-and-logic, cause-and-effect analysts of public policies pile on. The media piled on, with coverage at New York Times, Wall Street Journal Chicago Tribune and a bit of a counterpoint at Fox News, Breitbart National Review and others. By Friday, the University of Chicago caved in and threw Harald under the bus.
Start by actually reading Harald’s tweets.
Harold criticizes the “core organization @Blklivesmatter” — the political organization, not the self-evident proposition that Black Lives Matter — for “#defundthepolice : ‘We call for a national defunding of police.’ ” Harald called for “sensible adults to enter back into the room and have serious, earnest, respectful conversations about it all: e.g. policy reform proposals by @TheDemocrat and national healing.” And, yes, he made a little fun of protesters, some of whom might just be indulging in the usual habit of youth to disregard the full consequences of revolutionary ambitions.
Now, every sensible person here — including Harald — recognizes that we need fundamental reform of police, and well, “serious, earnest, respectful conversations” about why minority communities are doing so poorly, and better ways than police to address the high crime rates in those communities. As a long-run goal, I happen to think a lot less police is a good policy goal.
But that’s beside the point. Are Harald’s views here, or even his tone, so beyond the pale that he must be instantly shunned and de-frocked? An immediate “defund the police” is one particular policy avenue advocated by one particular segment of our political debate to address what we all recognize as a pressing problem. Is the wisdom of “defund the police” no longer debateable?
The Chicago Sun-Times thinks it is, in a moving article documenting the first Sunday of protest, in which 85 people were shot, and 24 killed while the cops were busy. Eventually, perhaps, an army of social workers can remove root causes of crime, but if there are no police tomorrow, it seems at least worth discussing whether tomorrow will see another 24 people killed.
Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot commented on defunding the police:
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate action at this time. I think that the people in our neighborhoods want and have been begging for more police support,” she said. “In light of what’s happened over the last couple days, it would be irresponsible for me to even entertain any idea that we would cut back on our public safety resources at this time.“
The race was on to call Uhlig a racist. Per the Wall Street Journal Maximilian Auffhammer came close.
a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tweeted on Tuesday a link to a letter that called for Mr. Uhlig to step down from his post at the journal, with encouragement for others to sign it.
“Prof. Uhlig is welcome to say whatever he wants. But his comments hurt and marginalize people of color and their allies in the economics profession,”
And Lori Lightfoot’s comments do not? But others soon filled in. A twitter search for “Uhlig racist” turns up lots of tweets.
The pile-on moved past the usual suspects on twitter. The New York Times reports
Janet L. Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chair, said in an email on Wednesday that “the tweets and blog posts by Harald Uhlig are extremely troubling” and that “it would be appropriate for the University of Chicago, which is the publisher of the Journal of Political Economy, to review Uhlig’s performance and suitability to continue as editor.”
Janet Yellen is not just an accomplished economist, a former Federal Reserve Chair, and a very nice person, she is the sitting president of the American Economic Association. She is entitled to her views as much as Harald is entitled to his. But here, as in a letter sent to the membership instructing us how to think and behave on such matters (more later), she speaks on behalf of that association. As ex chair of the Federal Reserve, one can expect Janet to be savvy when talking to reporters about personal vs. institutional opinions.
This is to my knowledge the first and only pronouncement by a President of the AEA, without disclaiming official capacity, on whether tweets issued by members disqualify those members for employment. It is the first such pronouncement that anyone should be investigated for their speech.
The AEA has a “code of conduct,” which encourages
“perfect freedom of economic discussion.” This goal requires an environment where all can freely participate and where each idea is considered on its own merits. Economists have a professional obligation to conduct civil and respectful discourse in all forums
The Presidents of the AEA have been silent at, say, Paul Krugman’s history of tweets, columns and even books that violently contravene this code of conduct. Krugman, the King of ad hominem, violates the code in the third word of the title of his book, “Arguing with Zombies,” and over and over again in its pages. Anyone who disagrees with Krugman is a Zombie? (An insult, by the way, with a dark racial history. Where are you, twitter mob?) He writes that other professional economists are “evil,” “stupid,” and accuses them of being bought.
One might with some justification complain about Uhlig’s tone, though Harald criticized protesters and a political organization, whose extreme language is common, not other economists or people engaged in “respectful discourse.” Are all protesters beyond Harald’s criticism, even looters who destroyed many Chicago neighborhoods? (Mayor Lightfoot’s phone call with aldermen is a bit critical of some protesters too.)
But neither Krugman, nor most of the twitter mob, nor the AEA, who have been silent on tone so far, have a leg to stand on for a charge that Harald’s tone is way out of line. Harald’s are the first tweets to receive public reprimand from the sitting president of the American Economic Association.
End of the first act, and I take a pause because nothing of what follows bears on the above.
The beginning of the end at Chicago came June 11 via this explosive tweet
June 12 The Chicago Fed fired Uhlig from his consulting arrangemen, and the JPE suspended him.
Now, the JPE advisory board (Robert Shimer, Lars Hansen Steve Levitt and Philip J. Reny, all good friends and great economists, so my pain here is deep at having to criticize their action) carefully say nothing about the tweets, media coverage, and protest. They cite instead the accusation of discriminatory conduct in a classroom setting. Now, such conduct is a very serious charge.
Ba, now a professor at U C Irvine, was sitting in a class in 2014, six years ago. At the University of Chicago, there was always the issue for classes that meet on Mondays, how do you reschedule the class that would normally take place on Martin Luther King day? It was always a difficult problem, as you can’t find a time when everyone can attend a make-up class. (Thanksgiving posed a similar scheduling problem.) In that discussion, Harald said something that Ba found offensive — that much is undeniable. What did Harald say about Dr. King? Precise words would help. Clearly in this interaction the tone mattered as much as what was actually said, particularly when Harald reportedly stopped to ask whether his comments had been offensive, a situation ripe for cross-cultural misinterpretation.
Yes, this incident merits investigation, to the extent that one can investigate comments made in classes six years ago reported via tweet. (Update: Commenters report corroboration of the incident, which will help to have a serious investigation.)
But the JPE, on Friday, was clearly not just responding this accusation. There is no way on this green earth that a tweet made on Thursday about a comment made in class six years ago leads to being suspended from the JPE on Friday, absent a mob demanding just that head for previous tweets about defunding the police. And an allegation of misbehavior in class would justify suspending Harald from teaching classes, maybe.
I spent much of my last few years of teaching afraid that I would say something that could be misunderstood and thus be offensive to someone. Many of my colleagues report the same worries. It is not good for open and honest communication in the classroom if a tweet about a comment six years ago can instantly destroy you.
Moreover, this is an extremely unusual action. I have known the JPE for 35 years. Not once that I am aware in this time has a JPE editor been publicly suspended for anything. There have been good editors and bad editors. There have been editors who found, improved, and published great papers, and editors who did not perform as well. Most of all there have been periodic crises caused by editors who let dozens if not hundreds of papers pile up, leaving many unattended to for years. Yes, those were eased out, and new editors came in to clean up the mess. Not one of these editors was ever publicly suspended. And no mention was made of any untoward action by Harald as editor — or even that there is or is contemplated any review of his performance as editor.
Why do I write? Sure, I’m just as afraid of the Red Guards of our twitter mob as the rest of you, and reluctant to offer contrary opinions. The Krugmans, Wolfers, and other assorted Jacobins are waiting for me to write or tweet one sentence that can be taken out of context and demand my head. I doubt the upper levels of administration at Stanford have any more spine in defense of conservative and libertarian speech than do those of Chicago. But we must speak for free speech before it’s too late. If you donate money to a university, you have a special duty to speak up and let them know where you stand. Chicago in particular has a courageous statement in favor of free speech. Demand that they honor their fine words with courageous action. Others, like my Stanford don’t even have the courage to state it. Demand that they do.
Update: And to the many colleagues who have written to say they feel this way too but don’t dare say anything, you need to speak up too. At a minimum others need to know they are also not alone.
Update: The Economics department at the University of Chicago has issued a statement,
The University is currently reviewing claims that a faculty member engaged in discriminatory conduct on the basis of race in a University classroom. The Journal of Political Economy has also placed the faculty member on leave from his role as a journal editor.
Update: Yes, I have updated this post a few times, as some colleagues and friends have kindly emailed to report errors.
Update: To a swath of twitter commenters, who seem willfully to misunderstand everthing, laced with profanities. No, this is not about Harold’s suffering, which does not indeed compare to that of African Americans shot by police. This is about Harold’s ideas, and all of our ideas. If, just perhaps, “defund the police” is a bad policy idea that will reduce inner city minority neighborhoods to the sort of economic depression and wanton gang violence they experienced in the 1970s, then voices that question this orthodoxy must be allowed to speak. The suffering of the 85 people shot in the first weekend of Chicago’s protests is real. The suffering of thousands more who will be shot, and denied lives of peace and opportunity if your ideas turn out wrong, is real. Real progress on these issues will demand changes uncomfortable to all sides of the political and policy debate, not just canceling anyone who dares speak out against a certain left-wing orthodoxy.
Update: June 22 statement from the Economics department.
The University has completed a review of claims that a faculty member engaged in discriminatory conduct on the basis of race in a University classroom. The review concluded that at this time there is not a basis for a further investigation or disciplinary proceeding. The University’s policy on harassment, discrimination, and sexual misconduct is posted here. In light of this outcome, the Journal of Political Economy has returned the faculty member to his role as journal editor.
Update: Will this pacify the twitter mob? Justin Wolfers already chimes in, completely disregarding the facts at hand.
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