AEA Admits It Doesn't Know the Literature
By David Henderson
We recognize that we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.
This is an astounding statement from the “officers and governance committees of the American Economic Association,” published June 5. Here’s the whole statement.
Like them, I don’t know much about racism’s impact on the economics profession or on the discipline. But unlike them, I have gone far beyond beginning to understand racism.
One of the earliest contributions to the understanding of racial discrimination was Gary Becker’s book The Economics of Discrimination, written in 1957 and based on his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago. One of Becker’s main contributions in that book was the idea that when an employer discriminates on a basis other than productivity, he misses out. Becker’s point was not that therefore employers would not discriminate but rather that the free market makes them pay a cost for discriminating.
In 1962, Armen Alchian and Reuben Kessel found, consistent with Becker’s model, that when governments regulate firms’ profits, as they do with utilities, the utilities have a diminished penalty for discriminating and, therefore, discriminate more.
Are these high-level people in the American Economic Association unfamiliar with this literature?
My friend Phil Magness just posted the following abstract of an article he wrote for Public Choice:
This paper investigates the historical relationship between the emergence of public choice theory in the 1960s and the problem of racial discrimination. Drawing upon archival research, I argue that foundational public choice scholars brought together four distinct strains of anti-discriminatory theory to grapple with the challenges posed by segregationist public policy instruments during the Civil Rights era. They include (1) the treatment of racial discrimination as regulatory capture, which is typified in the work of Frank Knight and W. H. Hutt; (2) the treatment of discrimination as an efficiency problem, building upon the closely related Chicago school insights of Gary Becker and Milton Friedman; (3) the treatment of discrimination as a constitutional problem, as seen in extensions of the framework of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock; and (4) historical analysis of discriminatory institutions, also as seen in the work of Tullock. Together, the four components provided the basis of a comprehensive economic critique of discrimination that has since been neglected in the literature on the history of economic thought, and that offers far-reaching insights into the academic literature on race and the continued problem of discriminatory institutions.
It’s from his “The anti-discriminatory tradition in Virginia school public choice theory,” Public Choice (2020).