Should Candidates for AEA Elections Tell Us What They’re Thinking?

Joshua Gans is an economist at the University of Toronto. He has appeared on this blog before and, as the author of Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting, was featured in our podcast “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting.” He has a long-standing interest in the economics of science as well as studies of the economics profession. He is also a long-standing member of the American Economic Association. On that last note, he has written a thoughtful essay that wonders if the candidates standing for AEA elections should be required, or at least encouraged, to be more forthcoming about what they’d stand for if elected.

 

Should We Learn More About AEA Candidates?
By Joshua Gans

It is that time of year when the 18,000 members of the American Economic Association (AEA) receive their ballots to vote for the society’s leadership. I have been voting in AEA elections for 25 years and the information provided is always the same. There is a voting sheet and then a pamphlet listing the bios of each candidate (e.g., significant publications, awards and administrative positions held) and a photo of each (see here). This is not a lot of information to go on. In my younger days, when I had little personal information on the candidates I would choose on their basis of their work, whether they are close to my field of interest (macro vs. micro, theory vs. empirical), and perhaps whether their politics matched my own.

These days I know many of the candidates both professionally and personally, and so now I factor into the equation whether I think they will be good leaders of the AEA. This may be correlated with the information in their bios but it is not a given. Very often I have found those who are less widely known in the public to have thoughtful ideas about the AEA and economics profession. That gives rise to a natural question: should we know more about AEA candidates than is presented to us formally?

A Bit of Background

Let me give those who aren’t AEA members some background. (Note: this is a little dry so, if you want, skip down a bit).

The American Economic Association (AEA) is arguably the most important scholarly society for economists in the world and its membership is worldwide. Members come from academia, government, and the private sector. Its most important event is its Annual Meeting held in early January that attracts more than 11,000 members. The AEA’s publications — including the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, and Journal of Economic Literature — shape the profession and their articles attract media attention and have an impact on policy.

The AEA is run by a dedicated team but lead by a group of officers comprising the President, two Vice-Presidents and two additional members that form an Executive Committee. These positions are elected by AEA members (one of the benefits of membership). The candidates for positions are chosen by a nominating committee formed at the discretion of incoming President. The President is not actually chosen by members but by an “Electoral College” (yes, that is the term used) formed by the committees I have already described. Technically, there is room for another candidate to be written in by members when they vote but my understanding is that this has never changed the outcome. The remainder of the positions are open for election amongst those nominated. About 4,000 members vote each year.

This actually is a common process for scholarly societies. The American Political Science Association has a similar process although with far more detail as to, say, how elections will be conducted. I guess they should know!

Innovation and Ideas

The AEA is not a static organization. It has evolved well, including enhanced disclosure policies for its journals in the wake of the financial crisis, new journals to match changes in the composition of academic research, journals that bring economic ideas to a wider audience, webcasts of AEA events, economic education initiatives, programs for disadvantaged groups and innovations to facilitate the market for economists themselves.

But the issues that come up are continual and important. This year, it was an AEA publication at the center of a controversy over results on the relationship of government debt to GDP. There are continual calls for more open provision of data underlying economics publications, something faced more widely in social and natural science. It will fall on the Executive Committee to deal with such issues and choose whether to be proactive or reactive.

One can imagine that AEA members may have differing views on these issues but also how they might be managed. On the one hand, perhaps we want a dispassionate Executive Committee that approaches the job without preconceived ideas and handles the issues based on evidence gathered ex-post. On the other hand, perhaps we want that Committee to be composed of people who bring in ideas and want to further an agenda. I suspect that the answers to these questions may also depend on the person under consideration.

My point is that, at the moment, members in general have no information whatsoever about the candidates in this regard. To me, that seems at the very least a reason to ask the question as to whether more information is warranted or not.

So I did ask that question. A week or so ago, with the cooperation of the Freakonomics blog, I wrote to all of the candidates as a group and asked if they would like to write a 100- to 200-word, for want of a better word, “platform.” The statements would then be posted here.

The reaction was mixed but sufficiently negative by some that no one wanted to proceed with that idea. Even those who may have supported the move wanted a unanimous approach.

The negative reaction was not because this might be done via a third-party blog rather than more officially. Instead, there was a principled push against such information being provided at all. While I am interpreting the reaction here somewhat as the email exchange did not elicit a fully articulated view, I think there was concern that moving towards positions may lead to some degeneration in debate and pre-commitment by officers to acts they may later regret based on new information coming to hand. I, personally, found this disappointing but I respect the thoughtfulness with which people will approach such matters.

What Would We Like to Know?

That said, the opinions of one subset of members are not decisive and I am writing this post to see if there is a broader interest in obtaining more information about AEA candidates. For instance, imagine that three questions were posed to candidates, with their answers were posted on the AEA website. The questions might be:

  1. What do you consider to be your role if elected to this position?
  2. Are there any issues that you believe should be on the AEA’s agenda this year?
  3. Are there any innovations that you would like to be evaluated by the AEA?

I think some short, structured answers to these questions will likely improve the information available to members about candidates and also, hopefully, spur more engagement by members in these elections and AEA activities.

Here’s a list of this year’s candidates:

For President-elect:

  • Richard Thaler, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business

For Vice-Presidents:

  • David Card, University of California, Berkeley
  • Judith Chevalier, Yale School of Management
  • N. Gregory Mankiw, Harvard University
  • Jeffrey Wooldridge, Michigan State University

For Executive Committee:

  • Dora Costa, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Guido Imbens, Stanford Graduate School of Business
  • David Laibson, Harvard University
  • John Williams, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

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  1. Isabel says:

    The most interesting thing here is that, as so often in similar and less significant elected bodies (I can remember lots of examples from my student days at Cambridge), you have only one presidential candidate. Why do bodies like yours so often make your most important choice in advance? And why does the general electorate not do this?

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  2. guido imbens says:

    Joshua raises some interesting issues. Personally I thought his idea about the candidates providing some information about their views was a good one, but there seemed to be too little enthusiasm to proceed. My guess is that this was partly because few of the candidates had really thought much about the issues that may come up. (I am speaking from introspection here.) I think, although I may be wrong on this, that the mechanism by which the AEA selects candidates for office puts little emphasis on selecting candidates who have thought deeply about the issues facing the association or who have creative ideas about improving the work the association does. In a world where the association would put more emphasis on finding candidates with ideas and enthusiasm for the job as opposed to the position, the association might become more proactive in dealing with issues they have traditionally been slow in addressing. In such a world someone like Joshua would probably be a strong candidate for the leadership! Perhaps that mechanism is something that should be reviewed, and Joshua’s ideas about having the candidates articulate their views would in my view be a good step in that direction. In the same vein, I have heard suggestions (sensible in my view) that the association may benefit from reviewing the role the papers and proceedings play in the American Economic Review.

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  3. Philippe says:

    For someone who has talked about how pointless voting is, I find this curious.

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  4. Joel West says:

    Josh/Stephen:

    AEA is highly influential but from an institutional (or governance) standpoint it doesn’t seem very innovative.

    The IEEE has been publishing candidate statements for years if not decades.
    http://www.ieee.org/about/corporate/election/pe.html
    At a time when academic and professional societies are debating their role (if not relevance), the counter-reaction to your proposal suggests that AEA members are consigned to selecting based on biographies (or subdisciplinary tribalism) rather than any understanding of what the candidates will do once elected.

    Joel

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  5. M.H. says:

    Beyond what Joshua describes, the slate that is open for election is not representative and contested. A coordinated campaign to vote for write-ins is lead by the Economic Logic blog, see here.

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  6. Donal Curtin says:

    I agree with Isabel’s earlier comment about only one presidential candidate. I appreciate that (as you note) many scholarly societies operate this way (the National Association for Business Economics being another). But why just one? And why just one, selected in private, by an insider group that itself is the product of the same opaque, non-contested process? There are Communist Party ‘elections’ that are more open than this! And even Britain’s Conservative Party adandoned this archaic system of the elders privately anointing their successors (the last one was held in 1963). There has to be a more open and democratic way that better enables the preferences of the electorate to be expressed and broadens the range of talents and viewpoints available to lead the AEA

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