First, from the Democracy Journal, published before last year's AEA meetings in SF, but just as interesting this year...
Economists of the World, Unite!
"Indeed, the AEA was founded both to conduct scientific research and to agitate for reform, both inside academia and in the public sphere. At its start, the two missions were inextricably linked. The old economics claimed to have discovered immutable laws governing the distribution of wealth, derived from a theoretical construction of an abstract, idealized economy. The founders of the AEA, on the other hand, looked first to study economic outcomes as they found them. Treating income, wealth, work, wages, depressions, trade, and so on as contingent realities as opposed to abstract truths naturally led to the conclusion that they could be altered by policy. That implication clashed with the political bulwark against so-called “class legislation,” namely any attempt to alter the social hierarchy through collective action or public policy. At all levels, therefore, this approach defied the intellectual foundations of classical economics.
"The leader of this group of young Turks was Richard Ely, a 31-year-old professor at Johns Hopkins University. Ely was a committed evangelical and a believer in the “social gospel” movement, which preached the application of Christian ethics to the creation of a just social order. But he was also an ambitious, modernizing professional academic. This combination of traditional and modern values drove him into the area of public persuasion, where he felt called to present economics as a friend to the common man rather than an apologist for his employer."
Another window on Ely (who turns out to have had racial views on eugenics) comes from this MR post:
Richard T. Ely, Alt-Right Founder of the American Economic Association, by Alex Tabarrok
Tabarrok's post is in response to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
When Economics Was Radical By Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger