Stephanie Aaronson on BPEA and the importance of diversity in economics

taking notes at a conference
Editor's note:

This interview is part of the Voices of BPEA series, highlighting women’s leadership in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA), an academic journal published by the Brookings Press twice a year. Each edition of the journal includes five or six new papers on a range of macroeconomic topics currently impacting public policy debates. BPEA is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020, and the Spring 2020 conference drafts were released earlier this month. 

Stephanie Aaronson is the Vice President and Director of the Economic Studies program and a labor economist whose work has examined, among other issues, labor force participation. Aaronson is also a three-time contributor to the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA)—most recently in Spring 2019.

What has been your experience with BPEA?

I first became involved in BPEA in 2006. George Perry, the founder, contacted one of my colleagues at the Federal Reserve about recent movements in labor force participation, which had been very puzzling at the time.  This colleague asked me and a couple of other labor economists to work with him on a paper for BPEA. I was excited to be invited to participate, because, of course, I had read a lot of the Brooking Papers when I was in graduate school―some of my favorite papers have been published in BPEA. We wrote a paper that turned out to be pretty important, because we made a very clear case that the trend in participation had started to turn down and essentially time has proven us right. A lot of institutions that depend on having the trend of the participation rate in their models, like the Social Security Administration and the CBO, have incorporated the insights of that model to a greater or less extent, and it has affected their trends and their economic outlooks. I’m certain that one of the reasons the paper turned out of be so influential in the policy community was that it was presented at BPEA. That gave the paper visibility that it wouldn’t have had in a more academic journal, because we were able to reach right out to policymakers and the economics press.

[BPEA] gave the paper visibility that it wouldn’t have had in a more academic journal, because we were able to reach right out to policymakers and the economics press.

More recently, I have been doing some work with former colleagues from the Federal Reserve System on who benefits from hot labor markets.  This is an issue of great interest to the FOMC since the dynamics could affect whether they should be taking into account the disparate labor market effects of the business cycle in making monetary policy. The paper seemed like a good fit for BPEA, especially because our starting point was BPEA founder Arthur Okun’s 1973 Brookings paper, so the editors invited us to include the paper in the most recent conference.

In your opinion, what progress has BPEA made in diversifying economics, and what else can and should it do going forward?

The economics profession has a well-known problem around the diversity of economists and BPEA is not immune from that. In fact, macro is one of the specialties within economics that particularly suffers from a significant lack of diversity, and given that BPEA is primarily a macro-oriented conference, I think the participation reflects that. We have to work really hard to move the needle towards more diversity, and I think we have been moderately successful at doing so.

In order to make the best policy we can make, we need diverse opinions.

I think BPEA has a very loyal following among an older generation of economists, and they are still great participants in BPEA, and because of that, when you come to BPEA, you have the opportunity to hear from some of the greatest minds thinking about policy oriented-macroeconomics. That is a huge benefit to all the participants, to the conference, and to the quality of the papers. But BPEA has not been able to engender the same loyalty yet among a new generation of economists. That’s something we really need to work on.

BPEA will not continue to be at the forefront of creative macroeconomic policymaking if it does not attract the upcoming generation of economists, if it cannot attract a diverse group of economists who bring a broad array of perspectives on the challenges facing us today. I think it’s vital that we work to expand the pool of economists who are committed to BPEA and attend the conference.

There’s a lot of research that shows that economists with different backgrounds― for instance male and female economists―care about different issues and view policy differently. That’s why it’s important, because in order to make the best policy we can make, we need these diverse opinions. It’s not just numbers, it’s because diversity matters for policymaking.

What would be your advice to women considering a career in economics?

Economics is a very powerful tool for policy-making, and people who care about policy should want to use the most powerful tools that they can.

Go for it! Economics is a very powerful tool for policymaking, and people who care about policy should want to use the most powerful tools that they can. I was not an economics undergraduate major, I was a history major, like Alice Rivlin. I became an economist because economics provides a very powerful set of analytic tools for understanding policy and whether you’re interested in an academic career, or you’re interested in a policy-oriented career, it allows you to think and write clearly about a very broad array of policy issues. I think a lot of times women and people of color think of economics as an MBA, but with a degree in economics you can study poverty, incarceration—there are a lot of socially relevant issues that you can study. Like this paper my co-authors and I just wrote, we were very concerned about populations that have not had as good access to labor markets and who are particularly vulnerable to recessions.

One positive force that I see now is that the profession is in the process of examining its culture and that has created some space for young people who are going into economics to shape and improve that culture going forward. There are those of us who are at advanced stages of our careers who are also pressing for change and want to support the profession and support young people in changing the direction. Right now we’re precisely at a point in time where we can be making positive change in the profession so it’s a better home for a more diverse group of people who want to work on these important issues. That said, I definitely don’t want to put all the pressure on the young people to make the change: they’re at the most vulnerable point in their career. The important thing is that people who are more senior in the profession are focused on this in a way they haven’t been in the past and need to keep the pressure up.

Special thanks to Maureen Heydt, who conducted and transcribed these interviews while interning at Brookings in spring of 2019.