George Borjas asserts that the prestige game is rigged in economics.
The editor, by selectively picking which referees will review the paper, has a lot of influence over how the “peer review process” turns out.  A good editor has a feel for how particular economists will react to particular kinds of work, so that by choosing the right reviewers the editor can “nudge” the final assessment in a particular direction.
In this case of possible rigging, it involves the American Economic Review, and an associate editor who has also worked with one of the authors of the recently accepted article.  I don't know that Professor Borjas has uncovered the first, or even the most egregious, case, of editors sending papers to reviewers who are likely to be favorably disposed to the paper, and I can't rule out having myself benefitted from that myself.

The good news is there's enough discontent among the younger economists rooting out the old girl network at work, plus calling out a source that might be dubious, to give Professor Borjas hope.
There’s still hope for mankind when many of the posts written by a bunch of over-educated young social scientists illustrate a throwing off of the shackles of political correctness and reflect mundane concerns that more normal human beings share: prestige, sex, money, landing a job, sex, professional misconduct, gossip, sex, and putting down “reg monkeys,” a subspecies of economists that cares little about conceptual issues and lives simply to run regressions.
Gotta love that "reg monkeys."  Not that running regressions automatically yields publications, whether in American Economic Review, in one of the Association's specialty journals, or in an archival journal.  I'm not sure to what extent looking for heteroskedasticity or autocorrelation or selection biases or unit roots or what have you constitute conceptual issues, or just chances to show off one's facility with canned programs; and there's been enough work in some parts of applied economics that your model ought to recognize that some sort of optimization is at work somewhere in the behavior being measured.

In some ways, though, the Review's favoritism, if that's what it is, might have tainted the careers of the authors.
I feel quite a bit of empathy for the young authors of Family Ruptures. They were ill-served by editorial decisions. Had Hoynes recused herself from shepherding the paper through the process at the AER, the worst that could have happened is that the paper would have been rejected; the two economists would have resubmitted the paper elsewhere; the paper would have eventually found a friendlier reception at a lower-tier journal; and the paper would have been published and henceforth forgotten, a fate shared by practically all academic papers. From the authors’ perspective, I think that outcome is far preferable to the situation today.
Better still if the paper had survived a clean vetting at the Review, although its future obscurity would still be as likely.  (And what does that say about the Research Imperative?  That's for another day.)

But the behavior of gentry economists might have much in common with the behavior of the gentry elsewhere?
As is much too common these days, when important people do something wrong, heads no longer roll. Would anyone be surprised if any day now the people involved issue a generic non-apology apology telling everyone that it’s time to move on? As someone else famously said:  What difference, at this point, does it make?

Let me get back to the pet peeve that motivated this long rant. Next time you hear about “professional consensus in peer-reviewed research,” do as I do: Roll your eyes. Who knows what went into the making of that particular sausage? And this warning applies ten-fold for peer-reviewed research in any politically charged subject.
That provokes Don Boudreaux to meditate on those self-selecting, self-reinforcing elites.
Yet in most cases the members of the current crop of “leaders” are not nearly as essential as they are believed to be.  While the identities of the leaders of organizations such as Apple, Inc. and the American Economic Association are more important to the success of those organizations than are the “leaders” of countries – organizations have purposes, countries do not – few individual leaders are absolutely essential.  Even in organizations, much of the order is formed spontaneously from the bottom up, and not consciously from the top down.  Even organizations have spontaneously formed resiliencies that ensure against collapse if the President or the CEO or the Chairman or the Archbishop is removed suddenly from power.

his truth is even more sure for so-called government “leaders”: the societies and economies that these people pretend to consciously direct – and, as I say, are widely but mistakenly believed to consciously direct  – are in no way really dependent upon these “leaders'” supervision and direction.
In Professor Boudreaux's reckoning, an excessive reliance on expertise, whether it's divinely inspired (the Pope) or rising through the ranks (the CEO who started as office boy) or ratified by the academic prestige system creates an internal contradiction.
The irony is that, if it were true that order in organizations and society is strictly and solely dependent upon the conscious decisions and direction from the top of “leaders, then these “leaders” should indeed be held to a higher standard – ethical, intellectual, and experiential – than that to which we in the hapless masses are held.  Yet the fear that ‘rolling the head’ of this or that “leader” will unleash disorder keeps these “leaders” held to lower, not higher, standards.
Perhaps that's the logic of hanging the occasional admiral, or sacking the odd associate editor, to encourage the others. Otherwise, the prestige hierarchy hangs on to its perquisites until the institutional rot fosters a greater disorder.


Dave Tufte said...

I am OK with going in either direction from here.

What bugs me is the extent to which we tell undergraduates (and even high school students) — and the extent to which it is believed — that quality of your work matters and that networking and clearing hurdles does not.

I would not say that we don't send that message: get good grades, get into the best schools, actually go to the good ones you get into, build a big network and leverage it, make your first swing count, and so on.

But I do think we give in too much to the platitudes: do what you love (even if it's a topic no one else is working on right now), don't worry about the network of your major professors, location doesn't matter, etc.

Dave Tufte said...

And now that I think about it, we spread on another myth way too thickly.

We tell young people that there are people like Bill Gates who drop out of their system and still do OK. And we contrast that with all the bottom of the barrel graduates for whom, say, a Harvard education didn't do much.

But what we miss is that for every Bill Gates, there's a thousand that followed the same path and crapped out. And that for every few lousy Harvard graduates there's a superstar.

This is very much like Taleb's allegory about the drowned worshipers.

David Foster said...

"While the identities of the leaders of organizations such as Apple, Inc. and the American Economic Association are more important to the success of those organizations than are the “leaders” of countries – organizations have purposes, countries do not – few individual leaders are absolutely essential."

Reminds me of a comment that Jeff Immelt of GE made in a moment of frustration after being compared negatively yet again with Jack Welch:

"Anyone could have run GE" in the 1990s "and done well...not only could anyone have run GE in the 1990s, his dog could have run a GE, a German Shepherd could have run GE"

On the other hand, the clueless person (or the German Shepherd) would likely have left a pretty bad mess behind them (worse than the one which was actually left, which was offset by some real accomplishments). The performance of a leader often has a very long time constant before it can be realistically measured.