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The Grumpy Economist: Letter to the AEA

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A group of economists recently posted a petition to the American Economic Association, that it move its annual meetings away from New Orleans this year and Texas next year, because of those states’ abortion laws. If you’re an economist interested in our — so far — leading professional society, you should read and consider the whole petition.  It has of course attracted a lot of attention on social media 

Excerpts, so you get the central idea: 

Louisiana’s ban on abortion… makes it illegal to obtain an abortion in Louisiana and criminalizes healthcare providers who perform abortions. …These restrictions on healthcare place an undue, differential burden on young women in the economics profession, who are forced to balance the risk of needing medical care unavailable in Louisiana with their professional obligation to attend the Annual Meetings…

The AEA bylaws state the our organization “will take no partisan attitude, nor will it commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.” However, the health and human rights of pregnant AEA members transcend partisanship. Economists who are pregnant or might become pregnant have an equal right to participate in our Annual Meetings without facing disproportionate health risks.

To protect the health and wellbeing of all AEA members, I encourage the Executive Committee to relocate the 2023 and 2024 meetings, and to commit to holding future meetings in states where women’s rights to necessary pregnancy care are protected.

I participated in an effort with a group of economists to write a letter to the AEA Executive Committee opposing this move, which is below and is the point of this blog post. 

I emphasize this letter has nothing to do with abortion. I favor of  free abortion access. Our objection is to the AEA going deeper down the rabbit hole of politics in either direction. 

I do not think there is any danger that the AEA will actually move its meetings. The executive committee is pretty sensible. However, there is a danger that the AEA will feel moved to issue additional statements of its support for political causes, and instructions to its members on how we all should feel and act. I hope the letter will nudge the AEA back to an a-political role, and to focus on the great current danger: increasing restrictions on academic freedom, and the rush to conformity and exclusion on political, ideological, or even economic matters. I also hope the AEA leadership will become a bit more aware of the wide diversity of views of its membership, and strive to become more inclusive. There are actual (gasp) Republicans. There are quite a few Catholics. A scientific professional organization must be much more open than organizations who are founded to advance particular causes. 

And that is my purpose in sharing the letter publicly. It is up to all of us to nudge our professional organizations to activities we value. If you browse the AEA website, or read the statements of its new officers you get a sense of where it is going. If you think different activities are important, such as defending academic freedom, then speak up. 

I salute the petition writers however. This is exactly what the Court had in mind in sending abortion back to the states. They must be watching the attention to state laws and state legislatures with pride. Go for it. There are many organizations that will help channel your advocacy for changing Louisiana’s and Texas’ abortion laws; Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and many more. If you go to Louisiana, bring a sign and organize a protest.  As a supporter of abortion rights, I would like to see state legislatures squirm, and at least to think through their laws more clearly. They are now the dog that caught the car. If you favor abortion restrictions, there are plenty of organizations that will help you to express those views as well, and bring pressure on state legislators. 

But not every organization needs to be bent to one view of every cause. The AEA must be a diverse and inclusive organization, focused on its narrow goal. 

The letter: 

****

Dear AEA executive committee:

We write regarding the petition to move the ASSA meetings away from New Orleans this year, Texas in 2024, and avoid similar locations in the future. We encourage you to resist the temptation of doing so.

This ought to be a layup. The AEA bylaws state that the association “will take no partisan attitude, nor will it commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.”  The petition is a clear attempt to boycott states based on their abortion laws. 

Yes, the petition claims the health of AEA attendees is at risk. But that claim is a transparent subterfuge. The chance that an AEA member needs abortion care during the three-day meeting and cannot get it due to Louisiana’s restrictions is essentially zero. The Louisiana law has been blocked, rendering any danger even less likely.  The petitioners present no evidence otherwise. Moreover, there are many health risks to attendees, but the AEA does not routinely survey host cities for the availability of hospitals, emergency rooms, quality of stroke or heart attack care, kinds of health insurance accepted, and so forth. 

Even if you believe there is a health risk, genuinely dissociated from your and members’ political views, you should recognize that this move will be universally perceived as a political boycott. 

Now you may feel that state-level abortion restrictions are such a vital issue that the AEA should break its bylaws to proceed with this boycott. However strongly you feel, we urge you not to do so, and to take this opportunity to strengthen the AEA’s status as an apolitical organization whose central mission is the advancement of economic science. 

 We stress that this recommendation is not about abortion. Our views on the matter vary, including some who support very lenient restrictions. 

The AEA rightly has never taken a stand on important economic issues of the day, and except for the George Floyd statement and reading list, has never taken a stand on important moral, social, or political issues, including the red scare, the Vietnam War, and others. Now is not the time to start. 

The first reason is diversity and inclusion, which have become mainstays of the AEA’s objectives. Diversity and inclusion include diversity of political affiliation, religious belief, and ideological orientation. People of different views must feel welcome, especially in a professional scientific organization.

Now it is likely that a majority of AEA members favor less restrictive abortion laws than those of Louisiana. Studies of the AEA find that AEA members are 3.8:1 Democrat/Republican, with AEA officers and editors 8:1, compared to a general population 1.3:1. Though not all Democrats are of one mind on abortion, these numbers suggest that a majority of the AEA membership supports a broad set of abortion rights—though perhaps not as uniformly as AEA leadership. 

But diversity and inclusion are the antitheses of imposing the majority’s political, moral, or ideological views. How would those members who support abortion restrictions, or merely the right of the citizens of Louisiana to vote democratically on this contentious issue feel if the AEA tells them that their views on this topic are so beyond the pale that the AEA cannot have a meeting in any state with restrictive abortion laws? 

Diversity and inclusion by political and ideological orientation and religious belief intersects with the racial and gender categories on which the AEA has placed more focus. Many Hispanics, Blacks, and women oppose abortion. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 40% of Hispanics, 27% of Blacks, and 35% of women state that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Are they additionally unwelcome in the AEA? In any diversity effort, it is imperative to emphasize that views of under-represented minorities may be heterogenous, and differ from the views of incumbent leadership in many unexpected ways.

The second reason is the precedent that this move will create. Suppose we accept the argument that the AEA cannot hold the meetings in Louisiana, and even the safety rationale. Then, what about states such as Texas or Arizona where non-U.S. citizen attendees may be at risk? Dreamers, undocumented immigrants, and foreign students with visa issues exist in our membership too. What about state and city gun regulations? AEA members have in the past been victims of robberies and other crimes at meetings. Members may feel unsafe in cities with easy standards for gun ownership. Others may feel unsafe that a city or state restricts their legal gun ownership. Some may feel unsafe that city police departments disproportionately target minorities, or that that are not enforcing gun laws, solving murders, and allowing too much crime. When we recognize this is a boycott, members may want to boycott cities whose public schools disastrously hurt the disadvantaged, or whose environmental or building policies they disagree with.  The list is endless. 

You should also consider the consequences. If you start boycotting red states, their legislatures may well forbid public universities from recruiting at AEA meetings and paying for conference attendance.  

Acceding to this petition will have a chilling effect on our entire profession. The outstanding catastrophe in contemporary academia is the increasing restriction on speech, academic freedom, freedom of inquiry, and the rise of political coercion. More and more students and young faculty especially are afraid to speak, to research contentious topics or to reveal religious and political affiliation, or other indicators of unpopular opinion. As a professional scientific organization, the AEA should loudly champion and defend diversity of research, opinion, expression, and inquiry for all our members. 

As we said, this ought to be a layup. You should respond that you do not see a quantitatively important danger to the safety of participants, and take the opportunity to stress that the AEA is not political, and that support for diversity, inclusion and free expression of different views is central to its mission.  We trust that you figured this out already, but perhaps our thoughts can help to steel your nerves and sharpen your response.  

As a sign of the problems pointed out in this letter, some signatories are concerned of professional repercussions if their view is known in public. We ask for your discretion not to forward this letter beyond your committee or to broadcast its signatories. This is a private letter to you, not a petition. 

Sincerely, 

[Signatures] 

******

Yes, at the request of quite a few people, we do not divulge names to anyone but the AEA committee. A sign of the times, and the main issue confronting academic economics which our professional organizations are completely ignoring. The signatories did OK my publicizing the contents of the letter. 

Happy 4th of July to all. It’s a good day to celebrate our messy chaotic democracy, approaching 250 years. 

Update: In response to the comment below. Since this is not a public letter or petition, it’s really not set up to add signatures. The best way to show support for these ideas is to write the AEA Executive Committee members directly. And tweet or rebroadcast on your favorite social media. 

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