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Revolving Doors: Affiliations, Policy Space and Ethics

A recent study found that a significant number of academic economists had held positions in both government and international institutions. This same pattern holds for economists in developing countries. The policy space has been restricted by this revolving door between national and international roles, because it forces a homogenisation of economic perspectives. There is need for a professional code of ethics providing guidelines for disclosure, but such codes may not be sufficient to address many questions, which may be best dealt with through a professional field of ethics in economics.


Revolving Doors: Affiliations, Policy Space and Ethics

Jessica Carrick Hagenbarth, Gerald Epstein

A recent study found that a significant number of academic economists had held positions in both government and international institutions. This same pattern holds for economists in developing countries. The policy space has been restricted by this revolving door between national and international roles, because it forces a homogenisation of economic perspectives. There is need for a professional code of ethics providing guidelines for disclosure, but such codes may not be sufficient to address many questions, which may be best dealt with through a professional field of ethics in economics.

We are very grateful for insightful comments from Leónce Ndikumana and Robin Broad. They are not responsible for any remaining errors.

Jessica Carrick Hagenbarth (jess.caren@gmail. com) and Gerald Epstein (gepstein@econs. are at the department of economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, US.

restigious financial academic economists in the United States (US) are pulled in a myriad of directions. They are leaders in their fields, serve globally as advisers to governments, and occupy key advisory positions in international institutions. They mould policy through advocacy, testimony and opinion pieces in worldrenowned publications. Additionally, some of these economists own or serve as board members, advisers and consultants to private financial firms. Despite this, many economists see their work as disinterested science and, as such, do not believe that holding multiple roles affects their behaviour (Flitter, Cooke and da Costa 2010).

Interests and Disclosures

In a study of the affiliations of 19 highprofile academic economists, we found that 15 of the 19 had private financial affiliations over the period 2005-09 (Carrick-Hagenbarth and Epstein forthcoming). We argue that under certain circumstances, overlapping roles can create potential conflicts of interest. For many professions, disclosure is the first step in case of such conflict. Others go further and urge such members to disengage from one of the two roles. Yet we found that the economists in our study rarely disclosed their private financial affiliations in their academic work or in their media writings and appearances.

It should be obvious that it is the most prestigious economists who set standards for their field, including such norms as holding both academic and private roles, as well as failing to disclose them. Though the sample of our study was fairly small, there is evidence that a larger study would reveal similar patterns. For example, a study by Reuters reported that (Flitter, Cooke and da Costa 2010):

[O]f 96 testimonies given by 82 academics to the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee between late 2008 and early 2010 – as lawmakers debated the biggest overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s – found no clear standard for disclosure.

They discovered that almost one-third of the time academics failed to disclose their private financial affiliations when giving testimonies. Hence, the pattern that we discovered is not confined to our group of 19 prestigious academic financial economists.

Although in our study we are unable to show that conflicts of interest affect the economists’ behaviour, there is a substantial literature identifying such a link among practitioners of medicine. In particular, that literature finds that studies conducted and/or authored by those receiving industry funding, often from pharmaceutical companies, were much more likely to generate pro-industry results (Barnes and Bero 1998; Bekelman, Li and Gross 2003; Bero et al 2007; Davidson 1986; Friedberg et al 1999; Friedman, Lee and Richter 2004; Heres et al 2006; Jagsi et al 2009; Sismondo 2008; Stelfox et al 1998).

While other professions have been concerned with the extent, effects and regulation of conflicts of interest, the economics profession in the US, as well as globally, has generally washed its hands off the topic. While virtually all other professions have adopted a code of ethics, economics professional organisations have not, both in the US and internationally (Bartlett 2009; DeMartino 2011).

The American Economic Association (AEA), formed in 1885, has faced calls for such a code since the 1930s. Coats (1985: 1710-11) explains the AEA’s response in the 1930s:

Needless to say, the AEA had no such code [of ethics], nor had the officers any sanctions or means of enforcement, and the executive committee, when pressed, viewed the investigation of such matters as beyond the range of its proper functions. Of course, some matters of professional behaviour could not be ignored, but whenever possible these were dealt with on an individual basis, without involving the executive committee or the membership at large.

The reasons why the AEA has never developed a code of ethics are unclear, parti cularly when so many other professions have. Coats attributes this absence to a

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history of ambivalence towards the topic, to the difficulty of enforcing such a code, and to the perception that proper professional behaviour was so obvious that no code was necessary (Coats 1985: 1710-11, 1718-19; Coats 1993: 446-47; DeMartino 2011: 63-65).

In 2011, economists began to pay more attention to the issue of ethics and disclosure in economics because of several events. First, the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression caused the public to question the economics profession for its failure to recognise the financial fragility. Second, the Academy Award-winning 2010 documentary Inside Job, directed by Charles Ferguson, dramatically criticised the financial services industry and the connections between this industry and academic financial economists. This drew the intensive scrutiny of the media to the role economists played in the financial crisis.

Around the same time, George DeMartino published his excellent book, The Economist’s Oath (2011), which pointed out the lack of serious consideration of ethics by the economics profession. DeMartino argued that of Economic Research (NBER) for its working paper series in July 2011 (Lahart 2011). This policy requires that the source of funding for research be acknowledged at the beginning of the paper and that researchers disclose “relevant and material financial relationships” that can affect their research.2

There is a good chance other journals will follow the AEA’s and NBER’s lead and adopt similar sets of guidelines (Lahart 2011).

The NBER disclosure policy and the AEA’s discussion of disclosure and ethics are commendable steps in the right direction. Yet from our study, we can see that the multitude of roles economists hold makes disclosure in public testimony and media publications a particularly important aspect that will most likely be ignored in journal-specific codes of ethics. That is why we advocate a professional code of ethics for economics.

Policy in Developing Countries?

In our study of prestigious academic economists in the US, we found that not only did they have extensive financial affiliations, but that many of them also occupied posts in government and international institutions. In fact, 14 of the 19 economists had affiliations with government or international institutions over 2005 to 2009. The five that worked with international institutions have also held government or central bank positions, providing evidence that high-profile economists move between various types of positions (Table 1). Just as

Table 1: Economists in Government and International Institutions

Economists Central Banks International Institutions Government
Economist 1 Panel member, Federal Reserve Bank of NY Member, Bank for International Settlements; Member, Bretton Woods Committee Panel of Economic Advisers, Congressional Budget Office
Economist 2 Consultant, Banco Central do Brasil None Programme Chair, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Centre for Financial Research
economists must embrace the issue of Economist 3 None None None
ethics beyond simply adopting a code. He proposed an “economist’s oath”, derived from the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath, as a commitment to integrating ethics Economist 4 Economist 5 None None Financial Advisory Roundtable, None Federal Reserve Bank of New York US Treasury for International Affairs Adviser, US Treasury Department; Staff, National Economic Council
into economics. These debates together reinforced the argument that economics, which has long pushed aside ethical considerations, needed to consider a field of professional ethics and implement ethical Economist 6 Economist 7 Economist 8 Economist 9 Consultant, Federal Reserve Board of Governors* None None Academic Consultant, Federal Reserve Board of Governors Consultant, World Bank* None None None None None None None

guidelines for economists.

In response to this chorus of criticism and concern, the AEA created a task force to study the issue of disclosure and ethics in economics. This decision was influenced not only by public outrage and media attention, but also by the actions of a group of 300 economists who sent a letter to the AEA leadership urging them to set up a committee to study a code of conduct

Economist 10 Financial Advisory Roundtable, None None Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Economist 11 None None None

Economist 12 Economic Advisory Panel, None Congressional Budget Office, Federal Reserve Bank of Panel of Economic Advisers; New York; Consultant, Bank Adviser, Cabinet of Finland Office of Japan Research Project

Economist 13 Member, Federal Reserve None Fellow, FDIC Centre for Banking Board of Governors Research

Economist 14 None Chief economist, IMF Consultant, Indian Finance Ministry

for the economics profession. In response, the AEA established an ad hoc committee of five, led by Robert Solow.1 This committee is responsible for coming up with guidelines pertaining specifically to the seven AEA journals but it will also hopefully deal with disclosure more widely.

Public pressure for disclosure is also reflected in the creation of the new disclosure policy put out by the National Bureau

Economist 15 None None Adviser to the Treasury, US Department of the Treasury

Economist 16 None None None

Economist 17 Consultant, Federal Reserve Consultant, Asian Development None Bank of New York and Bank Philadelphia; Consultant, Bank of England

Economist 18 None None Member, Council of Economic Advisers

Economist 19 Consultant, Federal Reserve Consultant, WB*; Consultant, None Bank of NY* IMF*

* Indicates dates are unknown.

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we show a revolving door between academic financial economists in international institutions and governments, a revolving door also exists between developing country governments and international institutions. For example, many finance ministers have also worked at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB) and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), or have gone to these institutions following government positions. This revolving door brings up ethical implications that cannot be addressed in terms of disclosure and codes of ethics.

Although codes of ethics are important, they are a limited set of behavioural guidelines and certainly do not encompass the many types of ethical questions and situations economists face. For example, in much of the developing world, the affiliations we found between the academic and the private sector are seemingly both less frequent and less important.

On the other hand, the policy space for national governments to make countrylevel decisions is a key arena of debate. The lending conditionalities imposed by international institutions in the 1980s and the 1990s often pressured governments to adopt neo-liberal policies (Stiglitz 2002). There is a certain homogeneity of theory and research within these international institutions. Those economists who pass through the revolving door potentially reinforce international institution paradigms at the national level.

Robin Broad (2006) presents a case study of the World Bank’s Research Arm showing how this homogeneity is maintained. She explains there are rewards for holding the same views as the institution, for example, in gaining employment, promotion and within-institution publishing opportunities. Furthermore, there are costs for deviating from the norm. Broad writes (2006: 407):

On numerous occasions when the present author asked Bank staff about someone whose work has raised dissent, the response was invariably that the person was ‘idiosyncratic’ or ‘iconoclastic’ or ‘disaffected’. In other words, people who do not project the Bank’s paradigm are diminished or ostracised or deemed a ‘misfit’.

The movement of economists between national government positions and international institutions is not an issue of

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disclosure. The affiliations of these economists are known and among the reasons they gain such positions. The ethics of policy space has to be dealt with through the avenue DeMartino (2011) has been calling for: a professional field of ethics. Economic policy decisions have winners and losers. DeMartino argues that economists carry an ethical imperative to carefully weigh the possible harms and benefits of policies and to consider the ethical dimensions of particular policy choices. He notes that unfortunately economists have avoided, in large part, both thinking in these terms and training future economists to think this way. A professional field of ethics would encourage economists to deal with the wider ethical issues that a code of ethics cannot address.

National Policy Space

Who should decide the role of the State? Chang illuminates this query in his book

Globalisation, Economic Development and the Role of the State (2002). He writes that the State has been seen through two primary ideological lenses in economics. First, welfare economics assumes that the market is superior to government intervention but that market failures exist; in these instances, the State must step in. The second lens is that of neo-liberalism. Here, State interference in markets is a cause of inefficiency and should almost always be avoided. Chang puts forward a third option – an institutionalist lens, focused on understanding what the factors in successful State intervention are.

The decision concerning what role the State should play in the economy is to some extent an ideological debate based on theoretical and empirical evidence (Marris 1986). But often this argument is not debated, and won, at the developing country level. Rather, it is frequently decided at an international level, in developed countries and international institutions. Consequently, powerful nations’ governments and international institutions often pressure developing country governments to follow global policy conclusions.

For example, the decision on whether to privatise public services (such as healthcare) or support the State in providing public services often comes down to the ideological lens through which the State is

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seen. Take healthcare as an example. The empirical evidence can clarify the question. If healthcare is privatised, who and how many will not have access to healthcare? If we assume that private business will better provide these services, what evidence do we have for this, particularly when the most vulnerable carry little weight in the market? How long will it take for private services to fill the gap of state-run services? Are we willing to trade the health and lives of people today for hopefully improved future provision? DeMartino has pointed how the obvious ethical dimension of such decisions is often ignored in economics even at the policy level.

Policy space for national governments may be restricted when international institutions and national governments have different policy goals and use different economic paradigms. In Latin America, neo-liberal policies prioritised economic policy objectives over social objectives. IMF policies have been generally pro-cyclical (Weisbrot et al 2009). This tendency may have wavered following the Great Recession but as Europe slides farther into crisis, the emphasis on austerity has only been reinforced. It has been shown that for developing countries, pro-cyclical policies can have negative impacts on long-run growth (Ocampo and Vos 2008). It behoves countries that have the policy space and can afford it to run counter-cyclical policies. Demanding that countries run pro-cyclical policies in times of crisis, such as the Great Recession, can have hugely negative welfare impacts on peoples’ lives. The decision to impose pro-cyclical policies should be considered not only in terms of economic outcomes, such as servicing public debt or paying down current account balances, but also in terms of welfare outcomes.

The Revolving Door

The rise of Keynesian economics in the post second world war era and the popularisation of state management of economic policies made economists key actors on the national and global stages. Bretton Woods saw the creation of the IMF and the WB, and the Marshall Plan brought the OECD into being. These three organisations were staffed in large part by economists, who began to wield substantial policy power and consequently, through their


rise within national governments. A 1986 account by Margaret Garritsen de Vries, IMF staff-person and official IMF historian, counted economists as representing onefourth of IMF personnel. (The other threefourths represented such personnel as language translators, editors, information technology specialists and administrative staff.) Economists were considered so central to the IMF mission that they called the support staff “non-economists” (Garritsen de Vries 1986).

Hand in hand with economists’ move to centrestage came the need for economists to fill positions in new international institutions. Initially, these positions were filled in large part by US and European economists because of the purported lack of economists from other regions (Coats 1986: 7), reflecting US and European power in the early staff composition of the IMF and WB.

In this way, the arena for economic thought was limited to leading theories and methods taught at prestigious US and European universities. As international institutions realised the necessity of economists representing other parts of the world, they began enlisting from other countries but with an emphasis on commonalities with the institution. These commonalities were achieved by recruiting from the same leading US and European universities, or from among students of the same professors, using similar techniques and training. Garritsen de Vries (1986: 57-58) describes it this way:

Differences in economists; culture, training, ideology, have generally not affected their easy assimilation into the staff or into the Fund’s work. Assimilation has usually come about quickly because of their relatively common background. Most staff have come from a relatively small number of universities, mainly in the United States or in Europe and to some extent from leading universities in third world countries where training is similar to that obtained in the US and European universities. They have many professors in common.

This created increasing demand for international economists trained in top US and European universities, which led to an increase in students attending these universities, as well as a homogenisation of economics at a global level.

In many developing countries, international institutions and economists from these institutions strongly influenced national policies. Yet there is often little space for national economists not affiliated with these institutions to influence policy discussions at the state level (Gallagher 2005). Although heterogeneous, national opinion is sometimes dominated by those economists with degrees from high-profile US and European universities and affiliations with international institutions, maybe because these degrees and associations are seen as more prestigious. Internationally, this may occur because such economists have opinions and training that translates most easily to international institutions and policy. The emphasis on a “standardised” practice of economics prohibits a full understanding of the particular economic problems and range of solutions specific nations face.


The revolving door between international institutions and government positions reinforces the ideology of international institutions at the national level. This occurs through several channels. First, economists attempting to obtain these prestigious positions tend to adopt similar policy goals. Second, an environment of homogenised economic beliefs reinforces a particular ideology, as happens within many international institutions. If such an economist is then elected or appointed to work for the national government, such beliefs will likely guide her/or him.

The emphasis placed by international institutions on common economic practice signifies a possible preference for interaction with national government economists and policymakers with similar backgrounds. This preference would support a revolving door between economists in international institutions and those in developing country governments. The extent of such a revolving door can be hypothesised to reflect the extent to which these institutions have had a hand in modifying national policy. Particularly in the 1980s, those economies that went farthest in adopting neo-liberal reforms were likely to have the higher number of economists moving between international institutions and government. For example, Latin America applied neo-liberal policies to a greater extent than much of the rest of the world (Ocampo 2004). Thus, we might expect to see the revolving door spinning a bit faster here.

In a superficial examination of finance ministers from Chile, Colombia and Mexico, we find considerable overlap between those in government roles and at international institutions. In Chile, the current Finance Minister, Felipe Larraín, consulted with the WB and IMF (ADN 2010). Nicolás Eyzaguirre, the Chilean finance minister from 2000-06, is the current director of the western hemisphere department of the IMF. Previously in 1998, he was named an executive director on the IMF Board of Governors (La Tercera 2008).3 The Chilean finance minister from 1994-99, Eduardo Aninat, worked with the WB and IMF during his ministry post from 1995-96; from 1999-2003, he served as deputy managing director of the IMF (IMF 2005).

Colombia’s current Finance Minister, Juan Carlos Echeverry, also worked as a consultant with the WB.4 Alberto Carrasquilla, the Colombian finance minister from 2003-07, was elected chairman of the IMF and WB Development Committee in 2005 (WB 2005). The Colombian finance minister from 1994 to 1996, Guillermo Perry Rubio, also served as consultant to the WB (El Tiempo 1995).

The Mexican secretary of finance from 2006 to 2009, Agustín Carstens, similarly worked with the IMF from 1999 to 2000 and became the deputy managing director of the IMF from 2006 to 2009 (IMF 2011).

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Angel Gurría, the Mexican minister of finance and public credit from 1998-2000, has worked as the OECD secretary general since 2006.5


We advocate a professional code of ethics detailing disclosure rules for economists. While such a code is important, it has limitations when confronted with the many challenges economists face in ethical practice. In many developing countries, the private financial affiliations of academic economists may not be of great concern. The most important ethical problems in these countries may be exactly those that are not addressed by a code of ethics. In this commentary, we explored the question of the policy space. International institutions’ preference for hiring economists trained in elite US and European schools has contributed to withininstitution homogenisation of economic opinion. The policy space of national governments is curtailed not only through lending conditionalities, but also by the revolving door between national governments and international institution positions for developing country economists. The revolving door reinforces international institution economic paradigms at the national level. Furthermore, the perceived prestige of international institution positions may bias policymakers in favour of those that work with these institutions and against those who hold dissenting views. When national goals differ from these international institutions’ goals, the revolving door becomes key in affecting policy outcomes. We join our voices to George DeMartino’s in calling for a professional field of ethics that would allow study and debate of concerns such as these.


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5 “Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General (CV)”. Last accessed 16 December 2011:

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