Lisa Cook interview: On invention gaps, hate-related violence, discrimination, and more
“This has to be a broader, more diverse field just for it to save itself, just for it to continue and remain vibrant.”
Published December 11, 2018
In the late 1980s, Lisa Cook arrived in Dakar, Senegal, to study philosophy—African concepts of time, to be specific. Her interests soon took a very different direction.
“One of the first things I do is to buy a Bic pen,” she recalls. “Each one was 10 dollars! Ten dollars! This completely stunned me. I knew how poor most people were. I knew students had to have these pens to write in their blue books. It just started this whole train of thought.”
The train led to a Ph.D. in economics, at UC Berkeley, and a dissertation on property rights and banking. She went on to Harvard for postdoctoral research, to the U.S. Treasury as a Council of Foreign Relations fellow, to the Hoover Institution for several years, and then to Michigan State University, where she is an associate professor of economics and international relations.
Many of the questions she now asks stem from that pen purchase—issues of poverty, economic development, financial systems, and international trade, often in Africa. She has studied the impact of Nigeria’s 2005 financial and banking reforms on economic stability and financial access for the poor. She advised the Rwandan government on its International Monetary Fund programs. She’s written about slavery in Sudan, export platforms for Ghana and Tunisia, and intellectual property protection in Brazil. As a senior economist on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2011-12, she worked on policies relating to the eurozone, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
More recently, her research has turned to questions of inequality in invention and innovation, documenting dramatic race and gender differences in patenting rates, for example, and investigating the causes. This relates to another stream of research on hate-related violence and its impact on economic activity.
As a member of a very small minority—African-American female economists—Cook brings insight and enthusiasm to powerful advocacy for women and minorities in the field. She will co-chair the American Economic Association’s summer program in 2019, and she sits on the AEA’s Committee on Equity, Diversity, and Professional Conduct. She is also on the board of advisers to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute.
She’s hopeful, if cautious, that the field will become more inclusive. “I think that the perfect storm has emerged in our favor,” she says. “This has to be a broader, more diverse field just for it to save itself, just for it to continue and remain vibrant.”
Interview conducted October 10, 2018.
“Metals or Management?” in Africa
Region: I’d like to start with a question about some of your work in Africa, which is where I think you decided to become an economist.
Cook: Absolutely, that’s right!
Region: You’ve done a great deal of research there, from banking reform in Nigeria to ending slavery in Sudan. I’d like to ask about “Metals or Management?” a paper that you wrote with Laura Nyantung Beny in 2009. You looked at Africa’s recent economic surge, with annual GDP growth climbing from about 1.8 percent in the 1980s to 4.4 percent in the early 2000s.
You asked what was responsible for that reversal of fortune. Was it economic reforms like macro stabilization and financial liberalization, or a boom in commodity prices of products like oil and copper? Your answer, in a word, was both.
Could you describe that research and tell us if you’ve had further thoughts since? As you said in your conclusion, “It would be interesting to revisit after the crisis is over.”
Cook: We wanted to learn if this was an anomaly. Everybody was saying that this is the “African century”—not just the African decade, but the African century—and while Africa was a bit insulated from the rest of the world, what would happen there in response to the financial crisis really depended on how connected African nations were with respect to trade, with respect to finance.
Nigeria is one of these emerging markets with close connections to the rest of the world. I saw it in the financial markets first and then in the banking system. That’s where management would be tested. Management in good times is probably a lot easier than management—and possibly, say, austerity—in bad times. And I say possibly austerity because automatic stabilizers in Nigeria are not going to work like ours; monetary policy doesn’t work like ours. So austerity policies would be a knee-jerk reaction: If the International Monetary Fund were advising Nigeria at that time, the prescription likely would have been to undertake an austerity program.
Region: The standard IMF prescription for nations in debt crisis …
Cook: That’s right. But post-our recession, it is no longer the rote position. It may still be the ethos, I believe, but not the automatic go-to position. In any case, I wanted to test whether management mattered in bad times. Is there sort of a high-tide period when you can mask all kinds of management problems? Would even average managers appear to do well because the commodities could hide their deficiencies? But, when the tide is low, the average managers would be separated from the excellent managers and from the bad managers. A crisis exposes everything that’s on the beach.
That’s what I think the benefit of hindsight would be. And, in fact, my co-author Laura and I have started updating the data for this. It might be next summer that we’ll look at this again, reviewing our results post-crisis, post-Great Recession.
Region: What’s your best guess? Will it be metals or management this time?
Cook: I would say management, because I think that commodity booms did that: masked management deficiencies. And for some commodities, there’s been a secular decline. Again, Nigeria’s a good country to watch because it’s so large. At some points, it’s the largest economy in Africa, and then it’s not representative in so many ways. But it’s dependent on oil exports, and how can you sustain optimism about so many parts of your economy when it’s relying on pricing oil at $90 a barrel or $80 or even $65?
So I think management will be called into question there, but I’d like to look at the broad spectrum of commodities. We found slightly different behavior with countries dependent on oil exports. Botswana, in contrast, sustained its economy with one commodity: diamonds. And it plowed revenue back into education and into health. So I’d like to see if it varies by commodity. That’s one question that we didn’t explore.
Gaps in pink and black
Region: Let’s turn to another body of work you’ve done, on invention and innovation. You’ve written a couple of papers on gender and race gaps: “pink and black,” as you phrase it.
You document huge race and gender gaps in science and engineering education, and in invention and innovation. Patent output, for example, is six patents per million for African Americans in the population and 40 per million for women versus 235 per million for all others. The gap is enormous. On the other hand, your data showed that there are increasing shares of women and minorities in engineering programs. Intriguingly, you also found that co-ed patent teams are more productive than single-sex female or male patent teams.
Cook: That’s right. And since I wrote that in 2010, there is a lot more evidence to support the co-ed team outcome. I asked my friends in Silicon Valley about it—I typically make an annual trip there to talk to people about my results—and they had a lot of different explanations, including that women are better managers, they’re really focused on getting projects completed, et cetera. So having two types of people on the team really mattered. And they came up with some other explanations that I am exploring.
Region: In the tech world, 2010 was eons ago. Have the pink and black gaps persisted, or are they closing?
Cook: The gap is pretty persistent, and that shows up in the data on the labor pool. We collected more data on the diversity of people working in one part of the innovation economy—at tech firms—from the tech firms themselves in 2014. And that showed a serious gap in the people participating in invention. But because the data are pooled, in many cases you wouldn’t be able to tell which positions people had, if they were tech or nontech, if it varied with respect to who was reporting, whether it was Amazon or Google or Facebook, for example. We don’t even have the data separated by country; there’s just a global labor pool.
What I have found is that the women and African Americans who were productive were likely superstars. When I say “productive,” I mean at commercializing their inventions. But I think they were unicorns, and I don’t think that the gap is closing in the way patent data would have suggested at the time the analysis was done in 2010.
Overcoming consumer discrimination: Garrett Morgan
Region: In a 2011 paper, you write about the importance of social capital—informal networks, structured associations, and the like—to inventive activity and product marketing, and the scarcity of such capital to African Americans during the Jim Crow era. And in a 2012 paper, you relate the example of Garrett Morgan, an African American who, in the early 20th century, invented the gas mask and modern stoplight as well as various beauty products.
Could you tell us about Morgan and the methods he used to sell his inventions in the face of racial discrimination and relative lack of social capital?
Cook: To learn about him, I went to a collection of his papers at Case Western University. This was one of those white-glove exercises, archival work. I didn’t know what I would find. And I found all of this advertising material. It was fantastic!
But I noticed right away that not a single advertisement for some of his best-known inventions had him in it. I was astonished, for two reasons. First, most advertising at the time used photos or images of the inventor. Edison was a prime example. There was a picture of Edison in all of his advertisements, side-by-side with all of his inventions, like the phonograph. Ford sold his cars the same way. In many of his advertisements, he literally stood behind his product. And, secondly, in advertisements for Morgan’s beauty products for African Americans, he and everyone else in his family were featured. I was struck by that.
So then I figured, there must have been some other differences in terms of selling their technology. I know that it depends on social capital. Now we take that for granted: Just think of the movie “The Social Network.” It’s the embodiment of needing social capital. There are so many things that support the infrastructure of innovation that one may take for granted. But if there is no social capital, no network, an invention may never be known of—a tree that falls in the forest when nobody’s there. African American inventors could face barriers in that way.
So, I tried to figure out the ways in which Garrett Morgan leveraged his social networks to sell his inventions. I just went systematically through the documents that were related to his businesses and thought, “How on earth would he sell a gas mask to firefighters all over the country if potential customers were likely not to buy them if they knew his race?”
Region: His tactics were astonishing.
Cook: They were; they were stealth. They were amazing. And he didn’t have the social capital of an Edison who had four or five kinds of networks—social networks, financial networks, political networks, scientific networks, and business networks that were nonfinancial.
So how do you develop these social networks if they aren’t immediately available to you because of segregation and discrimination?
Region: You point out that he relied on anonymity—stealth, as you just put it.
Cook: Right, absolutely. First, it was important that in the patent data, race is not recorded. So a generic name like Garrett Morgan wouldn’t suggest that he was African American, and he used that to his advantage.
Secondly, he featured prominent white businessmen on his business letterhead. Alexander Dreyfus, for instance, was listed as company treasurer.
And, third, he featured whites and other races in his marketing materials. To sell his gas mask, for example, he hired a Native American to travel with him. It was literally a road show. He would pretend to be the Native American’s assistant. That put customers at ease because it appeared he wasn’t the main one behind the invention, but rather the Native American was. At the time, Native Americans were given respect in American society as being inventive and resourceful. So this would translate into a good gas mask or a good moccasin or a good boat and so on.
It worked like a gem. He used Native Americans, but he also hired white men just to be called Garrett Morgan. And they went off doing road shows on their own too.
So he completely took advantage of the anonymity that patents afforded him. And there was no internet to look up his race, no Instagram to fact check this. Those tactics were very effective. And the test was that when a number of firehouses in the South found out that he was the inventor, they stopped ordering his gas masks.
He was a masterful salesman, always adapting to the constraints that surrounded him.
Hate-related violence and invention
Region: Staying with innovation and invention by African Americans, your 2014 Journal of Economic Growth article looks at the effect of hate-related violence on patenting, invention activity, and tangible capital.
You found a strong negative relationship between major riots and segregation laws and productivity by African American inventors. Your estimate was over 1,000 missing patents because of hate-related violence in that era.
Cook: Yes, right.
Region: This was from the late 19th century to the 1940s, a period of Jim Crow laws, lynching, major race riots, and segregation. What mechanisms were at work that suppressed invention? How specifically did violence and segregation cause this? Was it the absence of property rights and rule of law? Was it psychological stress interfering with cognitive processes, or was it by disturbing social networks, disrupting social capital?
Cook: I think it’s all of the above. Networks are broken when this violence breaks out. Segregation laws are intimately intertwined with promoting or allowing violence with impunity. So I think that all of the above would be true. Those would be the mechanisms.
When I wrote this paper in 2014, journal referees would ask, “How would a riot or a lynching in Tulsa or Cairo, Illinois, or all the way down in Atlanta affect anybody in New York or in Cleveland where all the invention was taking place?” I sent this to many journals before it got published.
Well, I don’t have to answer that question anymore. I think we’re seeing violence in our own country that is affecting us psychologically and nationally. But you didn’t need to have Instagram and Facebook. People at that time read widely. Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, reported on this. People talked to each other; they had access to telephones. They certainly would report what was going on, and they knew it informally. They also had smaller riots that I didn’t include in the paper, and there were certainly many more.
I think if I sent out this paper now, I’d [face] a whole different set of questions. But now, with police shootings and mass shootings associated with hate crimes, I think people get it now.
But then, too, all of those mechanisms were at play. It could be that X or Y event distracts you. Or violence could reduce access to finance or regulatory protection. “If you live in a certain neighborhood, I’m going to stop funding you.” Or, “I’m not going to give you access to the patent office or invest in your inventions.” Or, “I’m not going to underwrite your mortgage so that you can use the proceeds to be able to expand.” Or, “I’m not going to insure your studio or workshop.”
Region: And that’s not considered racial discrimination, but a financial decision?
Cook: Yes, it could be either. They would be observationally equivalent. Their risk calculation goes up. You can imagine what happened to insurers in Tulsa after the 1921 riot. I reported in the paper what happened to insurance for whites who made claims—they were affected as well.
Two types of people are completely distracted by this. In Tulsa and Atlanta, too, many of the people who would work for, say, businesspeople or just white families in the area weren’t able to get to work. African Americans who were cooks or taking care of children in white households or workers in a hotel couldn’t get to work. So it hurt those hotels and households too. It cut both ways.
As you probably know, this Tulsa riot case is being reopened because, apparently, there are claims of mass graves existing that haven’t been included in the totals for the number of people who died. I just saw this in the newspaper [a few] days ago—reopening the Tulsa case, almost 100 years old, because a number of families have not been able to find their relatives who disappeared during that time. And others are corroborating the notion that there are mass graves around Tulsa that haven’t been excavated yet.
But imagine, as an inventor, that helicopters are hovering over you, some with guns and others sent in by the National Guard. That has to be disturbing, psychologically taxing for everybody. I value my quiet time in the morning. If I don’t write between the hours of 4 a.m. and 7 a.m., I’m probably not going to write that day because I depend on that kind of quiet to get any serious writing done.
I can imagine the same would be true for inventors and anybody else who’s creative—doing work that requires a lot of imagination and persistence. If things aren’t quiet, predictable, normal, and functioning, I think that would be devastating for inventors.
When Israeli, Palestinian, Russian, Ukrainian, or Chinese inventors, or people doing business in those countries, are in the audience when I give this talk, they say, “We know exactly what you’re talking about. I can report the amount of money I’ve lost because my patent team has to go through these security checkpoints.”
Distinctively black names
Region: In two recent papers, you first documented that 17 distinctively black names were common in the United States in the early 1900s and then showed that men with those names enjoyed a significant boost in longevity—an additional year of life!
It’s often thought that distinctive black names were a creation of the Civil Rights era, an effort to reestablish heritage and identity, but you’ve shown that such names predated that time.
Curiously, you found that same percentages of men with distinctively black names existed in both periods—about 2 percent of the African American male population—but that no historical name is a contemporary name.
Could you elaborate on this research? What was behind the creation of distinctive names and the longevity effect?
Cook: I’ll give you some context for the first paper. I constructed from the census a list of black names in order to try to find individuals in the patent data. If I looked for African American inventors like Garrett Morgan in patent data, I was never going to find them because race isn’t reported. So I tried to find the most frequently used names by race.
I had two sources of census data, the U.S. Census and ancestry.com, two very different entities. I was drawing on two different sources and trying to validate one using the other. It wasn’t perfect, but I was able to develop this list of names. Then I met up with [co-authors] John [Parman] and Trevon [Logan], and they had names from death certificates. External validation, how about that? So that’s how we came up with the 17 names.
They only used male names because they were easier to map intergenerationally with the death data. I also have a list of women’s names, and they are coming up with their list of women’s names using the death certificate data. That’s future research.
Region: And what do you think was behind the creation of the names, and what might account for the longevity effect?
Cook: We knew about distinctively black names for the post-Civil Rights period, of course. We also had this hunch about such names in the past, but no one had systematically identified their existence.
Region: And, as I mentioned, you found that the earlier set of names weren’t used in the post-Civil Rights era.
Cook: That’s right. The names overlap, but not very much. Some names, like Luther, persist.
For our next paper on this topic, we’re investigating mechanisms you refer to. Why would the “blackest” names lead to longer longevity? One thought is this, and let me start by reminding you of some of the distinctive names from that time.
Many were Old Testament names: Abraham and Moses, for instance. And my sense of it, supported by both anecdotal evidence and historical records, is this: Most schools at that time, especially black schools, were in churches, and there was a special place in the community for those who knew the Bible well or were associated with biblical figures. They were some of the best-educated people in the community, and education was important to them.
If you walk into a classroom, and your name is Moses, that tells the teacher that your parents are concerned about your Christian education. The teacher will have a story from the Bible to use when you need to be disciplined. If you’re called Moses, and you’re acting up in class, and you’re not proving yourself a leader, there’s an instant story and an instant set of expectations that go along with that.
The students might have carried themselves with that in mind. They had a role model name—Abraham, Moses, and so on. The teachers, for their part, would have a signal about how seriously the parents take the student’s education, and they might raise the level of that student’s engagement and the teacher’s engagement with that student. That’s just one theory that we’re investigating, of course. There may have been several things going on, so we’re looking at a variety of potential mechanisms.
Lynching and segregation
Region: Let me turn to research you’ve done on lynching. The most recent article, again with Trevon Logan and John Parman, is about segregation and lynching in the American South.
You wanted to see, as you write, “Whether familiarity bred tolerance or contempt between white and black individuals.” You found that residential segregation was highly correlated with lynching of African Americans—with interracial violence, though not intraracial violence.
Would you describe that research?
Cook: Absolutely. As economic historians, we always think that nothing’s quite new. Everything has an origin. So this was an outgrowth of the patent work that I was doing, establishing this list of African American inventors.
The lynching data I found were incomplete and inconsistent—just awful [data]. So I started cleaning them up and using them for other things. One question we had was about the relationship between lynching and segregation. And what we found was that suspicion grows when people don’t interact with one another.
Think about your mother when you were small saying, “I can’t see you; what are you doing? What are you up to?” Just scale that up to an entire race or ethnicity. “I can’t see you; what are you doing? What are you up to?” We start imagining things, and that’s when we start putting stereotypes on people, and they start acting on those stereotypes.
You can see this in what happened with labor unions, right? They were segregated at first, but it turned out that the unions were better off, as were African Americans and other workers, when unions were integrated. They could be a joint force. Whites would be less worried that African Americans workers would be strikebreakers.
I think that bringing folks into the fold, working alongside them, possibly made them less suspicious of them. And now people work very vigilantly within unions and outside of unions. With fast food workers, for example, you see a lot of cooperation. So I think that isolation just brings about this psychological tunnel vision and insularity that allow one’s imagination to run wild.
Region: Would you elaborate on this statement in the paper? “The continuing influence of those residential patterns could play a large role in violence that occurs in urban and rural areas today.” How so?
Cook: I believe, and I think my co-authors believe, that the kind of red-lining that happened during the Jim Crow period has had persistent effects. There’s so much that has developed along those lines, and they have still not been overcome. The federal policy of creating highways that went through black neighborhoods is another example. It’s well documented, not a conspiracy theory, that it was done to support the destruction of black neighborhoods.
Region: The highway between Minneapolis and St. Paul was built through a black neighborhood.
Cook: Yes, I found that out when I was there. And it has had a lasting effect there and elsewhere. This is also in the [Daron] Acemoglu, [Simon] Johnson, and [James] Robinson vein, that these institutional changes can be persistent. You have neighborhoods that simply get used to being without a lot of resources when they are segregated and destroyed in this way.
Businesses and social institutions wind up on the wrong side of the highway, so they can’t be used anymore. Churches would be divided from their congregation by highways. This happened in Winston-Salem, my mom’s hometown. When you separate a congregation from their church, you’re separating them from their comfort zone, their refuge during the period of segregation. And, you know, the churches were sources of social services and education. You’re also putting them in harm’s way because they’ve got to cross the highway to go to church, and a lot of people don’t have cars.
There’s just a lot that happened that led to the breakdown and undermining of neighborhoods that were well-functioning. Now they’re not so well-functioning because of these kinds of things: red-lining, property values falling, or highways built through them.
Also, the kind of suspicion that comes from this entrenched segregation just bubbles up because people imagine what the other person is like. Blacks who are in these neighborhoods imagine what white people are like, or white people in a certain area imagine what African Americans are like. When all we have is television and Instagram, that’s not helpful. That probably breeds even more suspicion.
Green Books and discrimination during Jim Crow
Region: You have some really interesting work in progress with Maggie Jones, Trevon Logan, and David Rosé based on The Negro Motorist Green Books. Would you describe these travel guides and what you’re hoping to learn from them?
Cook: The Negro Motorist Green Books were used by African Americans traveling around the country during the Jim Crow era. These guides provided information on hotels, restaurants, auto repair and supplies, pharmacies, et cetera that served African Americans. Most of these establishments were owned by African Americans.
With the geocoded data, we are hoping to learn more about segregation, including the quality or intensity of segregation. Our measures of segregation, whether we are using my count of segregation laws passed in a given state in a given year or the Logan-Parman measure that reflects segregation measured at the household level, cannot tell us about the quality of segregation. Would a more binding segregation constraint lead to more or fewer businesses in a given geographic area? This is one of the questions we would like to examine.
Diversity in economics and lack thereof
Region: You’ve just returned from a conference at the University of California, Berkeley, the Summit for Diversity in Economics.
Cook: That’s right, and I’m speaking this evening to WAME, Women and Minorities in Economics, this new undergraduate group that has formed at Michigan State. I’m giving the inaugural lecture.
Region: Wonderful! A presentation that kicked off the Berkeley conference, by Shelly Lundberg, “The State of the Field,” reported that just 1.6 percent of full professors at Ph.D.-granting economics departments are African American, and less than 15 percent are women. That’s a disturbing gap, and I’m wondering, after the Summit, what do you feel are the best avenues for changing that? I also want to ask about the American Economic Association summer program that I believe you’re in charge of next summer.
Cook: That’s right.
Region: What can be done to improve this situation?
Cook: I was next on the agenda following the presentation of those data. This was the day following the Brett Kavanaugh hearings when Christine Blasey Ford testified. And I have to say that I had never seen such dejected faces in my life. There were probably 70 percent women in the audience of graduate students, about 30 percent underrepresented minorities. And I had to put down what I was going to say on the panel, and I had everyone stand up and sing “This Little Light of Mine,” two verses of it.
Because I also got the sense that these students saw this as an insurmountable problem. They look at these dire data, and the wind is sucked out of them. So the first thing that I try to do in the AEA summer program is to motivate and inspire them, set high expectations, and then try to prepare them for graduate study in economics. All the encouragement in the world isn’t going to help if you are not prepared.
But I think that women and underrepresented minorities are looking for some inspiration. How does it relate to my life? We’ve got to make economics interesting. How does it relate to your life? What are the problems that economists solve? We solve so many! This is a great time to be an economist!
I mean, what does the Nobel Prize represent as of Monday? It talks about climate change! And for me, it talks about innovation’s contribution to economic growth. Paul [Romer] was informally my first dissertation adviser. He told me what to stay away from!
That’s what I try to do first. Point out that these are the kinds of problems that we work on, and this is how you can channel your talent, your interest in math, your interest in economics. This is how you can channel it, and what you’ll have at the end will be great training, a toolbox, a systematic way to think about very interesting problems.
And I would say that there’s nothing that economists can’t think about. We think about scarcity, allocation, markets, and these all exist throughout society. So there are many problems that you can bring to economics.
Region: Even lynching.
Cook: Yes, even lynching! I present my own work. I tell them, “Did you think that economics would have anything to do with black names? Well, look at the analysis of black names at different periods in history that comes up with very different results. You have to understand the methods to understand how you should think about this work. This is why you should become prepared as an economist.”
And then I talk to them about the jobs at Amazon, Google. They’re recruiting lots of economists; that makes it even sexier. I don’t think economists should walk into AI willy-nilly, though, because we have our own biases, and algorithms will amplify those biases, so we have to be super careful about that. That’s why under 2 percent of full professors in economics are African American and under 15 percent women.
But I’m hopeful. I think that this problem is getting a lot of attention, and I sit on the AEA Committee on Equity, Diversity, and Professional Conduct. So I am hopeful that we are taking this seriously. The problem has been acknowledged, and acknowledging the problem is already a big first step. I have a lot of male colleagues in the profession who are absolute allies in this.
So I think that the perfect storm has emerged in our favor.
Go back to my result about invention, finding that co-ed patent teams are more productive. That is exactly what Janet Yellen was saying about the financial crisis, you know, that group-think—everybody being trained at the same places, by the same people, about the same things, thinking in the same way—is what led to the financial crisis.
So, we’ve got to have people who interact differently and think about the economy differently to be able to solve the toughest problems. I concretely believe that, and there is a growing body of evidence supporting the notion that diverse groups solve problems better and faster. I believe it for the Federal Reserve System. I believe it for the field of economics more generally. And for academia, wherever we are, that this has to be a broader, more diverse field just for it to save itself, just for it to continue and remain vibrant.