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The Wall Street Journal – Economy – October 12, 2011
Academic economists are moving closer to adopting a code of ethics in

response to criticism that ethical lapses in the profession helped
precipitate the 2008 financial crisis.
Many economists work with companies, financial firms, governments and
other organizations that are eager to tap their expertise. That has
opened them up to charges that the often lucrative consulting fees
they were receiving first blinded them to the risks to the economy
heading into the financial crisis and then steered them toward
offering policy responses that benefited their clients. But because
the potential conflicts of interest weren’t generally known,
government officials, the news media and the public took their
assessments at face value.
The American Economic Association, the largest professional society
for economists, decided last January to consider creating ethical
guidelines for its membership. That is something that other academic
associations, such as the American Sociological Association, have
already done, but that the AEA for years resisted.
The group’s change of heart was partly motivated by the public
attention the documentary “Inside Job”—winner last February of an
Academy Award—drew to the consulting relationships of several
influential economists. Among them: Harvard University’s Martin
Feldstein, who served on the board of American International Group
Inc. in 2008, when the government saved it from the brink of collapse,
and Columbia Business School’s Frederic Mishkin, a former Federal
Reserve governor, who in a 2006 report sponsored by the Iceland
Chamber of Commerce painted a bright picture of that remote country’s
economy, two years before it collapsed.
Mr. Mishkin said he welcomed the move toward new guidelines. “Having
better standards for the economics profession is good for the public,
and it’s good for the profession,” he says. Mr. Feldstein, in an
email, declined to comment.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Robert Solow, a Nobel
laureate, is leading a five-member ad hoc panel charged with drawing
up the guidelines. He expects to soon deliver its recommendations so
the association’s executive committee can consider them when it meets
in January in Chicago.
The group is focusing on providing disclosure guidelines to economists
when they face conflicts of interest, Mr. Solow said.
Some of the groundwork has already been laid by the 1,200-member
National Bureau of Economic Research. In July, it stipulated that
economists disclose research-funding sources for publications it
sponsors and working papers posted on its website. Economists must
also disclose “relevant and material financial relationships.”
“I think the NBER disclosure policy is excellent,” said Gerald
Epstein, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst
who has publicly criticized economists for not disclosing conflicts of
interest. “They give clear guidelines to people who are publishing
papers and they seem to be taking them seriously.”
Mr. Epstein said he hoped the AEA’s disclosure policy takes the
further step of recommending that economists disclose potential
conflicts when making speeches and writing op-eds.
The AEA has no authority to police economists, so any disclosure
policy it formulates will effectively only apply to papers in the
seven journals it publishes. But other journals will probably use the
AEA’s disclosure guidelines to formulate their own. And many economics
departments would likely establish rules that adhere to the AEA
Anil Kashyap, at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business,
is one of a number of economists who have opted to disclose, on their
websites, all of the organizations for which they have done paid work.
Most of Mr. Kashyap’s consulting relationships have been with
government entities, like the Federal Reserve, but he also has given
paid speeches to companies such as State Farm Insurance.
“It seemed to me it was simpler to just show everybody what you do,” he said.
Mr. Epstein thinks universities should require disclosure statements
like Mr. Kashyap’s, something that Columbia Business School started to
do this year.
The school’s dean, economist Glenn Hubbard, was criticized in “Inside
Job” for his relationships with companies such as insurance provider
MetLife Inc., whose board he sits on. He said he had disclosed those
relationships on his résumé, and that he believed they gave him
valuable insight into how business works.
“I consider for myself corporate board service to be very important,”
he said. “I’m not defensive about it; I’m proud of it.”
University of Denver economist George DeMartino, who published a book
on the need for a code of ethics for economists, said the profession
should weigh other ethical issues, such as whether it is right to
advise oppressive governments. Mr. Solow said those were issues that
the AEA’s ethics committee was unlikely to broach.
“I doubt this committee wants to go there,” he said. “One man’s despot
is another man’s national hero.”

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