Debate over comments from academic-journal editor Harald Uhlig comes during national protests over police brutality
A prominent economist faced pressure from others in his field to step down from an editing post because of comments he made criticizing the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements, reflecting some of the turmoil roiling economics and other professions following the recent police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.
The sparring this week between critics and defenders of University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig, the lead editor of the Journal of Political Economy, comes during national protests over police brutality and discussions about racial inequality and policing practices.
The debate over Mr. Uhlig follows several years in which the economics profession has sought to grapple with tensions in its ranks over its lack of racial and gender diversity.
In a Twitter post late Monday, Mr. Uhlig said that Black Lives Matter—a long-running campaign focused on issues of police brutality—had “just torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice,” a reference to calls by activists to shift government spending away from police departments. Those calls have increased since Mr. Floyd’s killing.
“Time for sensible adults to enter back into the room and have serious, earnest, respectful conversations about it all,” Mr. Uhlig wrote. “We need more police, we need to pay them more, we need to train them better,” he added.
Backlash grew quickly on Twitter, including demands from prominent and rank-and-file economists for Mr. Uhlig’s resignation from the publication, which describes itself as “one of the oldest and most prestigious journals in economics.”
“He belittled the movement,” said Olugbenga Ajilore, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank, who supports Mr. Uhlig’s resignation.
Mr. Uhlig and the Journal of Political Economy didn’t immediately return requests for comments. Mr. Uhlig apologized Tuesday on Twitter and said his views weren’t pronouncements by the journal or the University of Chicago.
“My tweets in recent days and an old blog post have apparently irritated a lot of people. That was far from my intention: let me apologize for that,” Mr. Uhlig wrote.
Too bad, but #blacklivesmatter per its core organization @Blklivesmatter just torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice : “We call for a national defunding of police.” Suuuure. They knew this is non-starter, and tried a sensible Orwell 1984 of saying,279 people are talking about this
Critics also had flagged past posts on his blog, including one in 2017 that criticized National Football League players for on-field, kneeling protests over police brutality.
Mr. Ajilore said Mr. Uhlig’s comments reflected a failure to recognize that the Black Lives Matter movement has had an impact on policing policy. Mr. Ajilore said the comments were further troubling because of how closely academic economists’ career trajectories are tied to their ability to have editors approve research for publication in top-tier journals, such as the Journal of Political Economy.
“How can you be an objective arbiter of work when you’re not able to recognize actual, tangible, serious, significant movements?” Mr. Ajilore asked.
Maximilian Auffhammer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tweeted on Tuesday a link to a letter that called for Mr. Uhlig to step down from his post at the journal, with encouragement for others to sign it.
“Prof. Uhlig is welcome to say whatever he wants. But his comments hurt and marginalize people of color and their allies in the economics profession,” Mr. Auffhammer, who planned to deliver the letter Thursday, said in an email Wednesday.
“I would also argue that they call into question his impartiality in assessing academic work on this and related topics. More broadly they damage the standing of the economics discipline in society,” he said.
Mr. Uhlig’s defenders also circulated their arguments online, saying in a letter he should remain in the journal post.
“We, the undersigned, do not believe political litmus tests should be applied when deciding who receives prominent academic positions. This is bad for economics,” the counterpetition said.
Robin Hanson, associate professor of economics at George Mason University, said he had signed the letter in support of Mr. Uhlig.
“The line is moving here in terms of how enthusiastically you must support a party line,” Mr. Hanson said. “You can’t in any way seem at all critical or you’re threatening our unity or something. That’s a Stalin level of conformity,” he added.
The American Economic Association has said it is working to improve the profession’s culture since a survey released in 2018 found women and minorities felt they were discriminated against in hiring and the publication process at top economics journals.
“We acknowledge the pain of our colleagues and students—and especially our Black colleagues and students—who must once again bear witness to evidence that violent racism has not yet been eradicated from our society,” the AEA’s executive committee said in a June 5 statement on Mr. Floyd’s death.
“We commit ourselves personally and professionally to actions that the economics profession can and should take to contribute to broader social efforts to root out racism,” the statement added.
Several black economists, and others, have called for the profession’s research methods to better address racial disparities.
William Spriggs, chief economist to the AFL-CIO, wrote in a recent open letter to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that Mr. Floyd’s killing offers the economics profession a chance to reflect on shortcomings in its approach to race-related issues and research.
“The overwhelming majority of explorations of racial disparities in economic outcomes remains deeply tied to that view of race as an exogenous variable,” Mr. Spriggs wrote. That model leads to economic analysis that “assumes that there is something ‘deficient’ about black people.”
Mr. Spriggs, in an interview, said economists should instead be more willing to identify the construct of race itself as the cause of certain unequal outcomes for African-Americans.
“Our theory is that the market rewards everything equally,” Mr. Spriggs said. Sometimes, “somebody is putting their hand on the scale and race is the marker that they put their hand on the scale.”