At the start of the Biden Administration, I expressed alarm over the anti-free speech figures being brought into the administration by the President. Indeed, President Biden himself has called for greater private censorship and speech regulation. This unease continued to grow as the President turned to figures long criticized for their opposition to free speech, including Dr. Lisa Cook, Professor of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University. Cook has been nominated for the Federal Reserve. The Democrats just “discharged” Cook from committee on a partisan vote to bring the nomination to a Senate floor vote. Cook has opposed the most basic protections of free speech and academic freedom on campuses during her academic career.
Cook was involved in one of the most notorious cancel campaigns discussed on this blog involving University of Chicago economics professor Harald Uhlig.
Uhlig was the senior editor of the prestigious Journal of Political Economy and remains the Bruce Allen and Barbara Ritzenthaler Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago. Uhlig drew the ire of the mob when he criticized Black Lives Matters and the movement to Defund The Police. (Notably, President Joe Biden recently denounced the defund the police movement).
“Suuuure. They knew this is non-starter, and tried a sensible Orwell 1984 of saying oh, it just means funding schools (who isn’t in favor of that?!?).But no, the so-called ‘activists’ did not want that. Back to truly ‘defunding’ thus, according to their website. Sigh. #GeorgeFloyd and his family really didn’t deserve being taken advantage of by flat-earthers and creationists. Oh well. Time for sensible adults to enter back into the room and have serious, earnest, respectful conversations about it all: e.g. policy reform proposals by @TheDemocrat and national healing.”
His comments immediately led to an effort to get him fired, including the ever-present online petition where viewpoint intolerance is some how strengthened by numbers.
The cancel campaign targeting Uhlig was led by figures like the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, who denounced him as the embodiment of “white privilege”:
University of Michigan professor Justin Wolfers denounced Uhlig for “trivializing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement” and “hurting and marginalizing people of color and their allies in the economics profession.”
Dr. Cook was one of those calling for the canning of Uhlig, one of the country’s most respected economists, because he held opposing political views.
Uhlig raised her past campaign against him when she was nominated:
Harald Uhlig @haralduhlig
Lisa Cooks nomination hearing was today. She accused me of “spreading hate” in 2020 and wanted my speech restricted, see screen shot. Why? Was she referring to my tweet back then, where I took the position that defunding the police is absurd. Care to clarify, Lisa Cook?
Cook accused Uhlig of “racial harassment” and called on Uhlig to be fired as the editor of the Journal of Political Economy and removed from working with students.
Cook’s view that “free speech has its limits” is certainly consistent with many in the Democratic Party today. Cook was not speaking of the usual limits for criminal conspiracy or other crimes where speech can be an incriminating element. She was speaking of limits on viewpoints when they are deemed offensive or unacceptable, including Uhlig’s comments on BLM or defunding police.
While once fierce defenders of free speech, Democrats now routinely call for private censorship and speech controls. Her effort to have Uhlig fired shows what is meant by such “limits.” He was to be fired as editor because he disagreed with Cook on his view of Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movement.
One could dismiss Cook’s intolerance for opposing speech as immaterial to her role on the Federal Reserve. However, the position will require supervision of employees who may hold opposing views on political and social issues. Moreover, Cook herself made clear that such views are material to whether someone continues to work as an economist. She wanted to prevent Uhlig from working as an editor because he held opposing views on issues like defunding the police.
“I was fired as consultant from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, following my tweets. Lisa Cook is on the Board of the Chicago Fed. She has the power to see to it that my firing is reversed. Has she taken steps to rectify that decision? I have not heard anything, if so. Does she perhaps endorse that firing as an entirely appropriate procedure to deal with dissenting voices? What, then, will happen, when she is appointed Governor? Will Fed researchers continue to speak freely about their findings concerning racial disparities or the importance of policing, or will speech by sullied, for fear of taking a wrong step and seeing a career come to an end? To the degree that these issues matter for monetary policy at all, will the Board be provided with a balanced and reasoned assessment by its researchers, or will only an activist voice be welcome?
This may all lead to considerable damage to the Federal Reserve, its focus on the limited mission in form of its dual mandate, and its wide respect as a neutral voice of reason on economic matters. The credibility and neutrality of the Fed is its perhaps biggest asset. Loose that and it may not be possible to get the genie back into the bottle.”
What is concerning to me is that anti-free speech sentiments either are valued by many in the Senate or dismissed as irrelevant. Free speech is often treated as an abstraction and rarely defended as a core value defining our country as a whole. While Cook believes that criticism of Defund the Police or BLM warrants termination, senators do not view her hostility to free speech as important enough to deny confirmation to a major federal position.