Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Footnote to the Gruber Affair

Jonathan Gruber, a health economist at MIT and the main “independent” analyst the Obama administration has relied on to put numbers on its health reform proposals, was paid almost $400,000 last year by the government to do this—but the payments were kept hidden until Marcy Wheeler of Firedoglake broke the story. A small firestorm has raged over this episode: see this and this and this.

Aside from what it says about the commitment of team Obama to open, honest government, it also casts a light on a lesser-known fact about the economics profession: economists never have to disclose their funding sources to the public. They don’t have to say who’s paying them when they publish a journal article. They don’t have to say who’s paying when they write op-eds or make presentations at academic gatherings. Unlike medical researchers, who have gone through a process of soul-searching over their financial relationship to pharmaceutical companies and other interested parties, economists never discuss, and apparently never think about, the potential for money to corrupt.

Obviously, incentives are important for everyone but them.


Ray said...

Since the beginning of the Not-so-great-recession, I have the following quote by Upton Sinclair more than any other:

"It is impossible to get a man to understand, what his livelihood depends on his not understanding."

~ray l

Suffern AC said...

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for one of those global accounting behemoths. We sell our independent opinions all the time.

When you hire a lawyer, you are hiring an advocate and would assume that much of what lawyers say is said because they are advocates. For other professions, you are paying for something very different. Most of the business professions that are involved in research cover this topic.

I wonder if the reason full disclosure isn't required in an academic discipline such as economics is that it sees itself as an academic discipline conducting research to generate discussions with other economists and looks at the disclosure as something polite to do...a thank you in the preface of a book or a footnote to the article. Do the business economists think of themselves as academics working in business or as professionals? Do you discuss as a group the rules for engaging people outside the discipline?

Peter Dorman said...

To my knowledge, AC, economists have never discussed the issue of disclosure, either formally or informally. Why? First, there is no attention given at all to the structure of their profession, in a sociological sense. (For instance, there is no discussion about the membership or influence of NBER.) Second, it is well known that many economists are driven by ideology. This has come to be accepted, and the reaction is that one should look at the argument, not the motive. The same approach might also apply to funding influence. Third, there is excessive confidence in the potential for "scientific" winnowing (which I've critiqued in the past) to separate the wheat from the chaff irrespective of sociological factors.

This is my thoroughly unscientific observation.

Min said...

"Obviously, incentives are important for everyone but them."

What do you mean? Knowledge is power. Until it is shared. There is a big incentive to keep your mouth shut, no?