"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."
The interview covers a range of intriguing work, and should be read in full. But for a flavor, here are a few points that caught my eye.
Pink and Black Patenting Gaps
Pink and Black Patenting Gaps
Region: 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. ... 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. ... The [gender and racial] gap is pretty persistent. … I don’t think that [it] is closing in the way patent data would have suggested at the time the analysis was done in 2010. 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.Garrett Morgan and the Anonymity of Patents
Region: "[I]n 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. ....
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. ...
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. ...
Black Names in the Early 1900s and Longer Life Expectancy
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! ... Could you elaborate on this research? What was behind the creation of distinctive names and the longevity effect? ...
Cook: For our next paper on this topic, we’re investigating mechanisms you refer to. ... 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.