“Stronger than I expected” – Gerald Epstein on AEA disclosure guidelines

Triple Crisis blogger Gerald Epstein was recently interviewed by Olaf Storbeck of Economics Intelligence on the American Economic Association’s (AEA) new guidelines requiring economists to disclose conflicts of interest. In 2011, Epstein and Jessica Carrick-Hagenbarth spearheaded an effort to get the AEA to adopt an ethics code for economists with a sign-on letter that garnered the support of over 300 economists.

One year ago, Gerald Epstein and Jessica Carrick-Hagenbarth, two economists at  the University of Massachusetts Amherst, organised an open letter to the American Economic Association urging the organisation to

“adopt a code of ethics that requires disclosure of potential conflicts of interest that can arise between economists’ roles as economic experts and as paid consultants, principals or agents for private firms”.

More than 300 economists signed the letter, among them Nobel laureate George Akerlof and Christina Romer, a former advisor to US president Barack Obama.

Almost exactly one year later, the American Economic Association in fact agreed on a new disclosure codex. (Luigi Zingales also presented an interesting paper on the “Capture of Economists”.)

What do the authors of the open letter make of the new guidelines? I did an interview with Gerald Epstein, who wasn’t involved in the discussions about the new rules.

Olaf Storbeck: Gerald, what do you think about the new AEA disclosure guidelines? Are you satisfied?

Gerald Epstein: I think the AEA guidelines are a very big step forward. They make very clear the importance of disclosure of potential conflicts of interest by economists and set out in detail the types of conflicts that should be disclosed. In some ways these guidelines are stronger than i had expected.

For example?

They require disclosure with respect to publication in AEA journals, rather than just recommend it. And they require such disclosure with respect to a broad range of possible conflicts including those connected to groups that might have an ideological interest in the outcome of the article and not just material or financial. While this cuts a broad area, I think it is healthy.

The guidelines also suggest that these same criteria for disclosure apply to all other publications, including non academic publications, media appearances and testimonies. By suggesting their application to these areas, as well as by requiring such disclosures for AEA publications, these guidelines will help to set norms of behavior that colleagues, the press, students and citizens can help hold economists accountable to.

Is there anything missing?

One could quibble about the $10,000 limit. For an economist who makes a low salary, smaller amounts would have a significant impact. Still, I think that as a bench mark, the $10,000 figure is fine since it will catch most of the economists for whom such kinds of activities are an important part of their work.

What should happen next?

These guidelines should be widely promoted and reported on in the press and it would be important for journalists, students and others to try to see if such guidelines can be broadly implemented for other publications, TV and radio appearances, etc. The point would be to make such guidelines a broad norm that are widely implemented .

Will these guidelines have any impact?

I do think they will have an impact in terms of providing information to the public. it is very difficult to predict whether it will have an impact on the professional activities of economists. It will take five  years or so to see that.

Would you recommend economic associations abroad to adapt similar guidelines?

Yes. Absolutely. I think this would be a good starting point for other associations. If they do not have publications, then they could still recommend the broad guidelines as indicated in point 7 of the guidelines. In fact it would be good to start with point 7 and then if they have publications, then require that they apply to the organizations’ publications.

This interview was originally published at Economics Intelligence.

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