Bretton Woods, Past and Present: 1. Ethics in Economics

Our interviews in the halls of the Mount Washington Hotel, covered the range of opinion about the severity of conflicts of interest in economics: we are alright; economics is no more corrupted than other sciences; corruption is substantial; it is rotten to the core.

Scholars who have working relationships, who read the same journals and newspapers, debate in seminars, chat in cocktail parties and testify to Congressional hearings, cannot agree on the status of their science. One explanation is that economists have never thought hard about conflicts of interest and the role that patrons play in knowledge production. There have been plenty of invitations to do so, but all have been rejected. Even economists writing on the economics of science, framing knowledge as an output of a production function, elide the question: if scientists are inputs, who is designing the product?

In the Spring of 1965, Radio Moscow, Havana Radio and Politica magazine of Mexico City revealed the existence of plans by the US Department of Defense, to employ social scientists in information collection and strategy design for counterinsurgency in the Americas. The documented claims forced the White House to promptly cancel Project Camelot. The list of consultants included distinguished sociologists, political scientists, a few psychologists, and two economists: Gordon Tullock and Thomas C. Schelling. The Camelot scandal initiated one of the latest and most significant attempts by social scientists to meet the challenge of compromising patronage. Its lessons are worth reviewing.

The anthropologists led the response. (The principal character, a maladroit recruiter, was an anthropologist.) In letters to the New York Times and in professional newsletters, anthropologists represented Camelot as an example of politics masquerading as science (in their terms “a cover for”, “to cloak”). The collective response would be to tear up the pretense. A Committee on Ethics was set up in 1967 for the jobs of surveillance and public denunciation. However, when in March 1970, the committee publicized the existence of a new Project, centered in Indochina that in all resembled Camelot, the ethics officers were tarred by the membership and the executives of the American Anthropological Association. The identity of the patron was deemed as insufficient reason to cast out as pathological research efforts and scientists. The official conclusion was that ethics should not serve as a criterion to discriminate science from non-science. Also responding to Camelot, the American Sociological Association was far more modest in its efforts, and set a model that has been more enduring. It demanded disclosure of funders and began in the final years of the 1960s the publication of “advisory positions”, while excluding any examination of individual cases. It publicized that sociologists were reflective types, while holding silence over any embarrassing discoveries.

Economists did not respond to Camelot. Over the years there have been multiple attempts within the American Economic Association to start a conversation about ethical standards. A committee existed under that name in 1959-61, with the mandate to examine “plagiarism or questionable practices in using or refusing manuscripts for publication” and was of no consequence and left no descendant. Later, in the 1960s into the 1980s, individual members petitioned the Association to create an ethics committee, the response by the Executive Committee was always the same: no need. Robert Solow concluded for no action in 1981, he now heads the first ever committee charged of producing ethical guidance to the profession. It has set new standards of disclosure, and economists are about to follow the example set by 1960s sociologists. Is (this) ethics what we need?

As a citizen I am interested in the stakes of this controversy, perhaps more so than economists. I want voices that I can trust in the dust of factious debate. I want my taxes to pay for their independence and public service. But as an historian my intuition is that these wishes are both naïve and quaint. The professoriate’s extramural commitments are no longer an exception, liable to policing and containment. To open the University was the banner of the labour economist and super-President of the University of California, Clark Kerr, but also of the Free Universities that antagonized his vision. The outcome matched neither design. We have neither the “Multiversity” nor the politically engaged professor, we have an entrepreneur scholar of uncertain loyalties. Historians do not yet understand a research environment where industry and finance, in direct and indirect ways, have become the hegemonic patrons of social science. It is only now coming into view that the ways to social knowledge, the production, certification and use, the public roles it is invited and paid to play, have changed. Perhaps, what my citizen self should be demanding is not ethical economists, but histories that remake my expectations of what are the practices and identities of the dismal scientists.

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