Economist Ebonya Washington joined the Columbia faculty in July 2022 as the Laurans A. and Arlene Mendelson Professor of Economics and a professor of international and public affairs.
Washington specializes in public finance and political economy; her research inter- ests include the interplay of race, gender, and political representation, and her work has appeared in numerous publications. She is cochair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession (CSMGEP) and codirector of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Political Economy Program.
Washington comes to Morningside Heights after almost two decades at Yale. She earned her PhD in economics at MIT.
The following conversation with SIPA Magazine has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When you say your research and teaching address political economy, how do you define that term?
Broadly speaking, it means using economic tools to study political questions. In my political economy courses, I cover topics such as voting, representation, and political institutions. In my own work, I’m interested in how people use the political system to get their economic needs met. For instance, Elizabeth Cascio of Dartmouth and I quantified the extent to which enfranchisement under the 1965 Voting Rights Act increased state transfers [of public spending] to southern Black communities.
What is something interesting in this vein that you studied recently?
I have a working paper that’s looking at the economic and political impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the places that were most vulnerable to competition with Mexico.
Before NAFTA, in the most vulnerable communities, voters largely supported the Democratic Party. In individual data, we saw that those opposed to free trade were more likely to align with Democrats. But President Bill Clinton oversaw the final passage of NAFTA, and the Democrats were no longer seen as the party of trade protection.
In the immediate aftermath of NAFTA, a person’s position on free trade no longer predicted party allegiance — until 2016, when the gap opened up in reverse. Peo- ple who want trade protection now are more likely to be Republicans, and the gap is larger than when it was the other way before NAFTA.
Inasmuch as you study the interplay of race and gender and political representation, does that factor into the paper you just described?
Oh, absolutely. Who are the people who switched parties following NAFTA? They are largely white, male, and non-college- educated and hold more conservative views. What we show is that the economic impact interacted with social or identity issues. When we talk about this rise in populism, people ask whether it is driven by economics or identity, but it really seems to be both together. NAFTA was the economic push, but it tended to push people whose views on issues like abortion and gay rights were already more aligned with the Republican Party.
You’ve written explicitly on representation in the profession of economics, and you’ve advocated for diversity and inclusion programs within the American Economic Association. Can you tell us more about your work in this area?
Economics has a diversity problem. The fraction of economists who identify as Black, Latinx, or Native American is quite low. In fact, the fraction of new economics PhDs who are Black is no higher than 20 years ago. In addition, we know from the AEA’s [professional] climate survey and from interviews we conducted for a paper that the experience of underrepresented minorities in the profession is poor.
At this point in my career, I’m much less interested in striving to get a paper in a top journal than striving to ensure that the trend line of new Black economists doesn’t remain flat. Improving both the numbers and the experience of minority economists is the lens I bring to all of my teaching, research, and administrative work.
What is your prescription so that 5 or 10 or 20 years from now, there’s been real improvement?
We need more initiatives aimed, not at changing minority scholars to fit the economics profession, but at changing the economics profession to be more welcoming. Many minority economists are thinking about this issue. But our numbers are small. We need every economist to be involved for things to change. As we teach our classes, interact with students, edit journals, and especially as we hire, we have to understand that diversity means addressing diverse topics, diverse ways of thinking, and diverse views on committees, which will lead us down different paths because we have different people in the room. Some people claim they want diversity, but they also want people to be doing the exact same work in the same way and behaving the exact same way in the office. To make progress, we need to expand that mindset.
After so many years at Yale, how do you feel about coming to SIPA?
When I was an undergrad, I majored in public policy. In fact, I wanted to get a PhD in public policy at one point. So if you could go back and tell the 22-year-old me that I would one day work at a place like SIPA, she would be very happy.