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‘Scientific Malfeasance’: Economists Point Out Flaws In Biden Nominee’s Signature Research

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  • President Joe Biden’s latest nominee to the Fed has faced criticism for embellishing her resume, but recently some economists have raised the possibility that her most famous research contains fatal flaws.
  • Lisa Cook, a professor of international relations and economics at Michigan State University, was appointed to serve on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System on Jan 14. Three weeks later, on Feb. 5, an anonymous Twitter account pointed out a mistake in Cook’s signature paper.
  • The Senate Banking Committee will convene on Tuesday to vote on Cook’s confirmation, along with two other Fed nominees, Sarah Bloom Raskin and Philip Jefferson.

President Joe Biden’s latest nominee to the Fed has faced criticism for embellishing her resume, but recently some economists have raised the possibility that her most famous research contains fatal flaws.

Lisa Cook, a professor of international relations and economics at Michigan State University, was nominated to serve on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System on Jan 14. Three weeks later, on Feb. 5, an anonymous Twitter account pointed out a mistake in Cook’s 2014 paper, “Violence and economic activity: evidence from African-American patents, 1870-1940.”

The anonymous tweet sparked a flurry of blog posts criticizing Cook’s paper. Andrew Gelman, a statistics professor at Columbia University, compared Cook’s dataset with a more recent dataset from the Brookings Institution and said the results did not match. “Hey—this is a lot different!” wrote Gelman.

This discrepancy is due to the fact that Cook’s data shows a large spike in the black patenting rate, while the Brookings Institution data shows a flat line. In her paper, Cook argues that the spike in the black patenting rate is largely due to hate-related violence like lynchings.

Michael Wiebe, a data scientist at Nike, pointed out a separate error in 2020 when he was a PhD student in economics at the University of British Columbia. Wiebe’s finding, that Cook’s paper is not replicable, now appears to be vindicated.

There were similar questions about this data before it was even published in 2014. Brad Delong, a professor of economics at Berkeley and Substack blogger, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that “When Lisa came to Berkeley to present this, we gave her a hard time on the data point, and she convinced us that it was a real discontinuity in patenting, and not simply a failure to identify patents by Blacks… [Cook convinced us by arguing that] people who had been patenting in the 1890s, and ought to have been patenting in the 1900s, weren’t.”

Harald Uhlig, a macroeconomics professor at the University of Chicago, wrote his own blog piece critiquing Cook’s research. “One must either dismiss [Brookings] or pretty much discard the findings in Lisa Cook (2014). I am much inclined to do the latter,” writes Uhlig. “Clearly, Lisa Cook knew about the [data issue]… Yet, no discussion at all. This is rather odd. Leaving out such an obvious alternative explanation for a key feature of her data may be an act of scientific malfeasance.”

In the same blog post, Uhlig called for Paul Romer, co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics, to retract his endorsement of Cook. Romer had made the endorsement earlier in the week based primarily on the strength of this paper.

Romer, Cook and the White House did not respond to inquiries from the DCNF.

“Uhlig presents this as some kind of problem for Cook and I just don’t see why. We’re always collecting and adding new data. It’s not as if we have all the data we’ll ever use and we’re just figuring out new ways to analyze it. Their patent data stands on Cook’s shoulders. Great!” said Daniel Kuehn, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and vocal supporter of Cook.

Claudia Sahm, the director of macroeconomic research at the Jain Family Institute and a former staffer at the Federal Reserve, claimed on Feb. 6 that she was going to defend Cook’s paper. “Getting ready to work on a ‘referee report’ on Lisa Cook’s Black patenting paper for an elite macro man… I’m writing up a balanced report on these critiques… I am very good at such reports, always fair and always critical,” she wrote.

That “referee report” was not written, but Sahm tweeted on Feb. 10, “Nowhere in the Federal Reserve Act, the Community Reinvestment Act, or Dodd-Frank does it say you need a flawless research paper with perfect data — no one has that, certainly not Uhlig — to be a Fed Governor.”

“[Uhlig] is missing the point of her nomination,” added Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economics professor at Northeastern University. “Right now the Fed needs an economist who understands the economic history of Black innovation to build an inclusive recovery.”

Jim Kessler, the vice president for policy at Third Way think tank, similarly criticized Uhlig’s motives rather than the substance of his critique. “It is evident this person has an ax to grind,” said Kessler. “It is a typically arrogant, dismissive and overly confident critique with the requisite number of ‘to be sures’ to masquerade as objectivity that I’ve seen when PhDs war with each other.”

The axe to grind to which Kessler refers is an incident in 2020 when Cook successfully led a campaign to have Uhlig fired from the Chicago Federal Reserve, where she now sits on the Board of Directors. Uhlig’s had criticized the Black Lives Matter movement for “its full-fledged support” of defunding the police, instead urging “serious, earnest, respectful conversations” and “national healing.” In response, Cook argued that “free speech has its limits” and that Uhlig’s position against defunding the police constituted “racial harassment” and “spread[ing] hate.”

The DCNF previously reported that some of Cook’s peers view her as unqualified.

“Professor Cook’s research has been widely touted as a reason to confirm her nomination to the Fed board. Based on the documents from MSU however, it appears that she received tenure and promotion primarily for classroom teaching — not her research output,” said Phil Magness, a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, to the DCNF.

Cook’s supporters insist that she is first and foremost a macroeconomist. For example, the Washington Post Editorial Board — which is composed entirely of journalists and zero trained economists — argued on Thursday that “In the case of Ms. Cook, some Republicans have claimed she knows little about the Fed and macroeconomics. That could not be further from the truth.”

The DCNF spoke to James Heckman, a professor at the University of Chicago and winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Economics. He says that, “Peter Diamond, 2010 Nobel Laureate, was turned down for the FED because many thought that while he was brilliant he had little knowledge of monetary policy. I am not sanctioning that but wonder how good Cook’s macro credentials are. She is a good economist but not as far as I can tell authoritative in macro.”

The Senate Banking Committee will convene Tuesday to vote on Cook’s confirmation, along with two other nominees, Sarah Bloom Raskin and Philip Jefferson.

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