MacroScope

New ethics standards for economists

January 6, 2012

It seems sensible for most professions but in economics it’s nothing short of a revolution: The 17,000-strong American Economics Association has adopted a stringent new code for disclosures meant to prevent or at least highlight possible conflicts of interest.

The unexpected move is the result of pressure on the profession about dubious ethical practices and a pay-to-play culture, including  a Reuters story that dug into conflicts relating to testimony on financial reform – and found that about one in three who addressed Congress on the subject of Dodd-Frank failed to come clean on some type of relevant financial interest. The issue of conflicts among academic economists was first brought to light by the movie Inside Job, in which former Fed governor Frederic Mishkin is questioned sharply about having been paid over $100,000 to write a glowing review of Iceland’s financial system not long before it imploded.

Here is what the new AEA code will require academics to do:

1) Every submitted article should state the sources of financial support for the particular research it describes. If none, that fact should be stated.

(2) Each author of a submitted article should identify each interested party from whom he or she has received significant financial support, summing to at least $10,000 in the past three years, in the form of consultant fees, retainers, grants and the like. The disclosure requirement also includes in-kind support, such as providing access to data. If the support in question comes with a non-disclosure obligation, that fact should be stated, along with as much information as the obligation permits. If there are no such sources of funds, that fact should be stated explicitly.  An “interested” party is any individual, group, or organization that has a financial, ideological, or political stake related to the article.

(3) Each author should disclose any paid or unpaid positions as officer, director, or board member of relevant non-profit advocacy organizations or profit-making entities. A “relevant” organization is one whose policy positions, goals, or financial interests relate to the article.

(4) The disclosures required above apply to any close relative or partner of any author.

(5) Each author must disclose if another party had the right to review the paper prior to its circulation.

(6) For published articles, information on relevant potential conflicts of interest will be made available to the public.

(7) The AEA urges its members and other economists to apply the above principles in other publications: scholarly journals, op-ed pieces, newspaper and magazine columns, radio and television commentaries, as well as in testimony before federal and state legislative committees and other agencies.

It’s a promising overhaul. After all, before this, there were no official ethics guidelines at all. How happy are economists about the new code of conduct? Here is one indicator: when professors Gerald Epstein and Jessica Carrick-Hagenbarth of the University of Massachusetts first circulated a letter to professional economists urging the AEA to adopt such a code, only 292 of its 17,000 members – 1.7 percent – signed it.

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