A Code of Conduct for Economists?

The Economist is running a forum on an interesting topic: Do economists need a code of conduct? The economists surveyed disagree on the merits of a code of conduct. Hal Varian is in favor: “YES, economists need a code of ethics. Any economist who reports an opinion or advice on economic matters would be expected to reveal any potential conflicts of interest that could distort the objectivity of the report.” Lant Pritchett, for one, disagrees: “This is not how an academic community should conduct itself. We should stand for allowing truth to emerge from a dedication to the evaluation of ideas, arguments, and evidence based on scholarly and disciplinary discourse.” Your thoughts, please; extra points given for not beating dead horses. [%comments]


You mean like a code of conduct as used by lawyers and politicians?

Whipless in Seattle.

Why do people beat dead horses anyway?


Andreas Moser

I am absolutely against any ethics codes.
- Economics is a social science. It should not be curtailed in any way, but free thinking and discussion should be encouraged.
- There are laws. That's enough for an ethics code.

Ian Callum

Enron was big on ethics training. It didn't work.

Eric M. Jones

No code of ethics would prevent someone from not being ethical.

Am I missing something?

Michael Vukovich

Ethics is most certainly a much debated issue and rightfully so. As a recent graduate of engineering out of Binghamton University, the topic of engineering ethics was posed in many different ways. One way ethiccs was positioned in my classes was evaluating the way engineer's products effected society throughout the product's life cycle, especuially when considering its disposal as we move towards a more sustainable society. Should economists be concerned with how their sensative information effects society in terms of cultures effected or jobs lost? Who should economists consider in their study? For example an economist would find it difficult to argue that the use of child labor overseas to make many of the products we use today cheaper and therefore makes for a better bottomline. However, consider all the lives effected from this information, both overseas and in this country. Just another way of looking at it.



Having an economist simpy be required to report when he or she has an economic interest in an outcome that he or she is predicting or an issue he or she is commenting upon is not only the only moral thing to do, it is consistent with the basics of free markets. The more accurate information everyone has, the better the decisionmaking.


yes, conflict of interests disclosure is a must. Ethics in general - unsure.

Drill-Baby-Drill drill Team

If you follow the money, you can detect conflicts of interest. TRANSPARENCY may be just as important as ethics.

Only when the tide goes down that you see the Economists in their Speedos.....Or not.

Duncan Miller

Hell yes! I strongly believe that economist, like any other profession should be bound to a code of ethics in their field. What makes the case more justifiable for economists though is in the fact that they are continually striving for for a free market scenario in which there is little to no governmental intervention and regulation. If there were to hypothetically be a day in which governments give into the demands of economists, what's to stop them from operating in unethical practices that could potentially affect any number of people? My personal mindset is that a code of ethics would be a perfect substitute for government regulations and set up a sense of accountability within the profession.

Being Canadian I had no choice but to sit back and watch the housing and financial industries within the United States begin to crumble in the latter months of 2007, as well as 2008 as a direct result of federal deregulation and lax control over the banks that had their proverbial fingers in both honey jars. What's worse is that in the aftermath of it all, who was held accountable for the mass international chaos that unfurled as a result of the banker's decisions? No one. No one was punished with criminal action as what these banks has done were completely legal, just unethical. Had there been some sort of code of conduct in place for the American banking system at the time, there may very well have been no difference in the events that transpired (who knows), but at least we would have had people to point fingers to as to put legitimate blame upon, and with that may have created a sense of fear within these banks to watch their future actions or be subject the same ridicule in future context.


Simon Grey

Are there really that many evil people in the economics profession? And what sort of harm can they actually do? Seems to me that the proposal to have a code of ethics is a weak attempt to validate the profession, and thus belies insecurity.

Michael Radosevich

Conflicts of interest should be disclosed. It is impossible to assess the value of a person's opinion if we don't know if someone is paying that person to voice that opinion.

This is commonly done on business shows when stock analysts are routinely asked, And do you own any of the stocks you mentioned? It's not that hard to do.

Clayton Anderson

No: a code of conduct intent on regulating ethics in economics is redundant.

Umair Haque's blog on "Google, China, and the New High Ground of Advantage," explains how ethical decisions can result in a thicker, long term profit.

The Economist's article on "It Pays to Give" details the benefits of greater choice in the short term.

The rules followed by economists are beginning to be ethical, so why regulate.

Ed Mroz

For a start, all economics journals should require authors to say who pays them as consultants. Most biomedical journals now require such disclosure, and that disclosure hasn't curtailed free thinking or discussion in biomedical science. The disclosure does, however, allow readers to evaluate potential conflicts of interest that might have (even inadvertently) crept into the design and analysis of a study.

Is there some reason why economists shouldn't provide similar disclosures?

Ajen Lewis

A code of conduct is only effective if there is great incentive to follow it. Aside from legislation, there is little practical negative reinforcement that can be used (i.e. it is unlikely to be regulated with legislation). Positive reinforcement is equally problematic. Regardless of whether or not the content of a code of conduct is desirable, I doubt anyone would have any motivation to adhere to one with shame and righteousness being weak exceptions.

Even if there are no drawbacks, I just don't think it's worth the effort.


Funny that I found the following article by Hal Varian about copyrights.

He proposes policy solutions which had great implications for Google for which he works now (and I believe was involved in when writing the article). Somehow I did not see any mention of his relationship with Google or mention of the book scanning project at Google. Instead he mentions a similar project by Carnegie Mellon whose scale was tiny compared to that of Google. I would believe there is a strong case for "conflict of interest that could distort the objectivity of the report". He is listed as a "professor of business, economics and information management at the University of California, Berkeley" at the end of article with no mention of his relationship with Google.

To his defense, his association with Google is listed on wikipedia but there is no mention of it along with the article something that he proposes should be done in the debate at economist. Rather than use the comment for personal attack on Hal Varian, I would emphasize that conflict of interest is more pervasive than people imagine and hence there is a strong case for a code of conduct.


John Scott

Go watch the movie Inside Job, and tell me that the wonderful Economists did not have a conflict. They should all retire and lets get a new group. At least Summers is gone, well maybe. Mr. Turbo Tax Geithner should leave, and now I will never send my kids to Columbia and Harvard for an MBA if they keep those Economists.


Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha


First, it's too bad that people and groups in our society need a code of ethics to act and write with integrity. But having noted that, that's the way it is. If I were to write a paper for the professor and fail to cite sources, not indicate quotations, or otherwise fail to prepare and write my paper with integrity, I should get reamed and receive a failing grade. Economists should hold themselves to high standards but people being what they are, should have a code of ethics to follow.


Any time the academic community brings up the need for disclosure, I remember the preface to Edward Said's Orientalism. For academics of any discipline to ignore their individual background and the effect that has on the way they think is a great disservice to the academic community. Even with more theoretical economics, as with mathematics, a proof will determine the approach an individual takes to a problem. Removing disclosure of associations is removing a great deal of information behind the thoughts of the individual. Enough research on information on research has been done for there to be agreement that more information is (almost) always better (bargaining games aside).