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Greater diversity among economists would improve quality of their work

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The prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement has come after the death of George Floyd at the hands of American police — but it has happened, too, at a moment when some of the economic and social inequalities faced by black and other minority ethnic groups have been brought to the fore in the most dramatic fashion by the coronavirus pandemic. There could be no more poignant a time for people to rally behind the Black Lives Matter banner than when black lives are being lost from Covid-19 at three times the rate that white lives are being lost.

Some of this difference can be “explained” by other socioeconomic differences. Deaths from Covid-19 appear to be even more concentrated in poorer areas than are deaths from other causes. Yet that is nowhere near enough to account for the scale of differences.

Black Lives Matter also should resonate at this moment because black lives are being put on the line more than others in keeping the rest of us safe. Black African men are four times as likely as white men to work in the health and care sectors. Black Africans make up just over 2 per cent of the population, but 7 per cent of nurses. Indeed, most ethnic minorities are more likely to work in the caring professions than are whites. Those of Indian ethnicity make up only 3 per cent of the working-age population, but more than 14 per cent of doctors. More than a third of of the UK’s doctors are foreign-born; nearly one in ten is from India.

The differences between us are all too evident when considering economic vulnerability. Men (though not women) in almost every ethnic minority group are more likely than white British men to work in sectors that were effectively closed by the lockdown. Black African and black Caribbean men are 50 per cent more likely than white British men to work in these sectors, those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin nearly three and four times as likely, respectively.

That we know all this, and more, is down to the great work being carried out by statisticians and economists at the Office for National Statistics, the University of Edinburgh, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and in many other places. It’s their job, our job, to shine a light on such facts. Many readers, I hope, will have been aware, at least in broad terms, of some of these figures as a result of these researchers’ efforts.

They may be less aware that over the same period there has been rather a lot of soul-searching going on within the economics profession. The editor of one of the profession’s leading journals has been suspended after some (to be kind) tin-eared comments on current events. This soul-searching has helped to educate me. I wasn’t really as aware as I should have been that some of the historic figures associated with economics had some very dodgy views, indeed. I frequently invoke the names Gini and Pareto — in economics, names given to measures of inequality and of efficiency. The former was a eugenicist, as, indeed, was Keynes; the latter associated with fascist ideology, though to be fair neither was actually an economist. We may not have our statues, but we certainly keep alive the names of some characters with some pretty unsavoury views.

Rather more important to the present, however, is why, in Europe at least, there hasn’t been more focus on issues of racial discrimination and inequality in recent economics literature and why some, especially black, ethnic groups are so under-represented in university economics departments and research institutes.

Part of the answer may lie in the results of a survey last year by the American Economic Association, which found that a third of non-white economists felt treated unfairly on the basis of their racial or ethnic identity. The reason for that may be related to the way in which academic economics works. As Dani Rodrik, a leading economist and professor at Harvard, has put it, the profession is clubby, hierarchical and “there are too many jerks”. It’s hard to get to the top of the profession unless you start out at a top institution. Economists, being economists, are continually ranking each other.

He puts the “high jerk quotient” down to the way in which academics are rewarded — publish “well” and you can get away with an awful lot. Much of this may be down to do the nature of academia in general rather than economics specifically. Jerks are not confined to economics departments. But put all this together and, according to Professor Rodrik, “it is not surprising so many people, especially people of colour and women, feel slighted and discriminated against”.

Why am I telling you all this? Why would you care about what is going on within the economics profession and what on earth does it have to do with what we know of the experience of ethnic minorities during the pandemic? Well, it matters because economists, their ideas and their analyses can be powerful. Powerful groups with limited diversity of experience and thought can hinder progress; they can even be dangerous. I absolutely don’t subscribe to the view that economists are at the root of all the world’s evils, but I do think that we could be an awful lot better and that greater diversity would help us to be better. It might also change the focus of research, in particular of the most influential research.

It would be foolish to predict that either Covid-19 or Black Lives Matter will lead us to change the world for the better, but both provide an opportunity for reflection and, perhaps, a catalyst for change; an opportunity and a catalyst that economists, among many others, should not ignore.

This article originally appeared in The Times and is used here with kind permission.