I wrote myself a letter, and answered it:
The senior guy in my field acts like a total jerk sometimes. He's working in an area I care deeply about - gender and taxation. But he trivializes and sensationalizes critically important issues. For example, I just heard him give a talk about the optimal tax treatment of goods primarily consumed by women, and he repeatedly used Coco Chanel perfume as an example. That makes it seem like gender-based taxation is about frivolous, unnecessary luxuries. It's not. O.k., he mentioned "tampon taxes" too, but that's not an interesting economic issue either. Because feminine paper is a small but absolutely essential purchase, taxing tampons is like imposing a lump-sum tax of about $1 a month on menstruating women. It's a salient political issue, and a sensational one too, but it's not economically meaningful.
The big issues in gender and taxation are gender-based income taxes (as opposed to gender-based consumption taxes), and empirical public policy questions, like which parent to target with benefits if you want more money spent on children. There is good work out there - but this guy didn't reference it once!
As well, his model assumed that all time spent outside the labour market was "leisure" and thus welfare-enhancing. So any policy that reduced the amount of time women had to work made women better off (though reducing women's hourly wage rate made women worse off, because they had less power within the household.) That's just ridiculous. Especially when people have young children, time at home is hardly leisure. Plus the model "black-boxed" the division of power within the household.
The icing on the cake was that the talk was sprinkled with gratuitous remarks about Chinese people. I've heard him speak before, and he does this every time.
What should I do? He's a journal editor, and highly likely to be refereeing my papers for the foreseeable future. I frequently encounter him at conferences. Directly confronting him would be career suicide. But at the same time, his influence is moving an entire field of research in an unproductive direction. A model of the household without children, household production, or any kind of bargaining is a fundamentally flawed way of understanding gender and taxation. What should I do?
Whatever you do, deliberate before acting, and play to win. There is no point in making a career-limiting move that does not further your ultimate goal. So the first question to ask is: what do you want to achieve?
Is your objective to prevent this guy from saying offensive things in public? Reasoning with him, and trying to explain why it's inappropriate to speak this way would, as you said, be career suicide. He could write you off as a politically correct SJW, ignore your request, and possibly punish you for stepping out of line.
Moreover, it wouldn't work. Stories are more effective than lectures. You have a better chance of persuading someone if you can frame the issue in terms of their moral principles, rather than your own. If this guy's guiding principle is professional self-advancement, you could subtly suggest his language makes him seem old and dated, as in, "I love the Coco Chanel example - the way you talk reminds me so much of my dad." It might work, and if it does, you've helped build more friendlier and more collegial academic environment. Though, to be honest, I don't think I'd ever have felt comfortable telling a senior guy they reminded me of my dad [Updated].
Yet if this guy changes the way he acts in public, without changing the way he thinks about the world, or the decisions he makes, are you any further ahead? He's in a position to act as a gate-keeper, and there's a serious danger that only his cronies and acolytes will be let through the gate. Preventing this guy from saying offensive things in public, without changing the way he acts in private, risks changing an overt danger into a hidden one.
Are you sure that this guy's private persona is as jerk-like as his public one? You mention his failure to cite other people's work, and his unattractive modelling assumptions. These are bad signs. But in this business you never really know who your friends are. I'm thinking of a self-proclaimed Marxist-Feminist with wandering hands, and a friendly and supportive senior guy, who once got very friendly. I'm also thinking of a colleague who is a hard-core conservative, yet consistently votes for female candidates in hiring or tenure committee meetings.
It's worth saying to some people who know this guy, "The tone of Prof ___'s keynote was a bit off - I think some people in the audience felt a little uncomfortable - is he usually like that?" There is a danger of coming across as too gossipy, but overall it's a fairly low-risk strategy. Academics love to gossip. The frank and honest exchange of information is our lifeblood. [Updated]. You'll learn something useful. Moreover, news of this guy's bad behaviour will start to spread. That can have positive effects. No one wants to invite a keynote speaker who might say something offensive. Plus if the rumours get back to him, professional pride might induce him to change his behaviour.
If you learn that this guy is a jerk in private, as well as in public, what can you do? You may be tempted to wait and hope things get better. Unfortunately, our discipline has a remarkable ability to reproduce itself. Senior people hire and promote miniature versions of themselves. Once this guy ages out, there's a good chance his carefully chosen and groomed successor will be just as bad.
You can avoid him, and advise others to do the same, but that limits your opportunities, and is of marginal use. Indeed, tacit acceptance of this kind of behaviour, and an absence of critical voices and alternative perspectives, is one reason why it can continue. So that's why it's worthwhile firmly and politely pushing back, even if it seems like a sisyphean task. [updated]
You can deliberately avoid citing his work, and reference the work of more sensible people instead. You can encourage others to do likewise. This strategy is effective, but not without downside risk - either this jerk, or one of his acolytes, might be referee #2 on your next paper.
In situations like this, collective action can be the safest and most effective way to spread information, shift social norms, and press for change. You could latch onto an existing social movement, or start your own. The all-male panels and all white panels campaigns show how just a handful of people, acting together, can raise awareness. Even econjobrumors had its moment of glory, when it outed Bruno Frey's self-plagiarism. Professional networks, like the Canadian Women Economists Network, can provide you with moral and professional support, and advocate for institutional reform.
Institutional structures matter because professional decisions - like who to invite to give keynote addresses at conferences, who to ask to be president of the Canadian Economics Association, or who to recruit to edit a journal - are often made in an ad hoc fashion. For conferences, the keynote speakers are often chosen by one person acting alone. Even when two or three people are involved in decision-making, the conversation is literally not that different from: "Who'd be good?" "Oh, I don't know - what about Fred? I was chatting to John the other day, and he said Fred was doing really well." "Yeah, he's just got that paper out in the AER, and another in the JPE. Let's ask Fred." Success begets success, and bad behaviour doesn't matter.
Sometimes decisions are made without consultation because of malicious intent. But sometimes it's just because academic economists either can't figure out how to consult with other people, or have never even thought about doing so. You yourself can do things to create a more consultative structure. It might not take anything more than saying: "hey, let's invite everyone who's interested in getting involved in organizing next year's conference to get together during the coffee break." If decisions are made in a more open and transparent way, then perhaps there might be some hope of getting a better speaker for next year's keynote address.
In short, there's no easy answer to your question, Professor Seething. Whatever you do, try to live by these three basic rules (1) Cover your ass (2) Look after students, junior colleagues, and support staff (3) Enjoy life.