A note on changes in the study of economics

The NYT has an article about how Stanford is working to become an economics powerhouse (not that it wasn’t already a top school) through big hires and retention of great faculty. It’s a pretty insider-y article, but I did think there were a few nuggets. The first is something I noted early on in my time here, that economics these days, empirical microeconomics using big administrative datasets or requiring significant relationship building with policymakers, requires a lot of help, and many skills that traditional economics programs don’t really offer (management, hiring, cross-disciplinary work, etc.)

That kind of work requires lots of research assistants, work across disciplines including fields like sociology and computer science, and the use of advanced computational techniques unavailable a generation ago.

It kind of feels like a whole different ballgame. In some ways, it’s exciting. But I also worry about how it makes economics much more dependent on post-docs and grad students and large amounts of funding. All these things could make it harder to break into the discipline, to have an impact and make waves if you are lacking them. It may not be so extreme as to call it the physicsification of economics, but I see my astronomer and hard-sciences friends languishing in post-docs for years and it doesn’t look fun.

In terms of the overall conclusions of the piece, Greg Mankiw’s comment about how Harvard/MIT’s dominance will be hard to challenge resonated with me, merely for a reason of concentration of economists. Having spent a little more than a year now at Harvard and twelve years at various other institutions studying and teaching economics, I can’t stress enough how different this place is from other institutions. There are economists everywhere in Cambridge, which means more seminars, more chances to run into someone working on something exciting, more visitors, more events. Now that classes are back in session, I remember how much I love seminars and workshops. It’s awesome to hear about new things that people are trying and to hear how great minds think about different problems in estimation and methodology. It’s been a real privilege. It’s also really fun to chime in and have Larry Katz nod in agreement or Michael Kremer tell you that you have a good idea.

Though if Boston gets another winter like last one, who knows what will happen!

Advertisements

AEA Job Market Portal

In a move that is widely considered (at least from my limited discussion with colleagues over the past few hours and extrapolating from years of conversation) a long time coming, the American Economic Association has decided to expand its share of the recent-Ph.D. employment space. The new JOE Network, as they’re calling it, will be a platform for uploading CVs and teaching statements for candidates as well as letters of reference for advisors, coauthors and other letter-writers. I assume this is meant to bypass the multiple websites in this space already. In the past, the JOE has been the first place to go for employers to advertise openings and thus for graduating PhDs (and mid-career professors looking to change jobs) looking for a job. Among my most popular blog posts are ones from the series called “Job listing of the month.” There’s some pretty good ones in there.

But I digress, from the AEA website:

The AEA is proud to announce the new enhanced JOE (Job Openings for Economists) targeted to the comprehensive needs of all participants in the annual economics job market cycle.

The new JOE Network automates the hiring process. Users share materials, communicate confidentially, and take advantage of new JOE features to easily manage their files and personal data. Everything is securely maintained and activated in one location. The JOE Network is accessible right from your desktop at the AEA website.

While in the process of applying for jobs, many of my colleagues and I have questioned why this didn’t exist before. Econjobmarket.org filled a lot of this space, but there are so many competing services in the market now, I’m not sure how useful it’s going to be. It’s either got to be demonstrably better for employers, so that they convince their department heads/HR to switch, or I don’t know if anyone will actually switch.

One colleague on twitter mentioned how big a deal moving to electronic was for many schools. I can’t imagine if they’ve already got their process down with Academicjobsonline.org or whatever other service they’re using, that they’ll be compelled to switch.

An even worse outcome, which is something I’ve observed employers doing already, is to require that you apply through multiple sites (perhaps local HR site and Econjobmarket.org, for instance). At any rate, hoping it’s useful to job seekers and that they’ve got all the kinks worked out before the first deadlines start coming.

March job listing of the month

I probably get too much of a kick out of reading the JOE each month, but something’s gotta keep me going, right? This month’s job listing of the month comes from the American University of Nigeria. My first thought, before I read the actual ad was, “would I move to Abuja?” only to find out that the university is not in Abuja, but Yola, in Adamawa state. According to the ad: Adamawa state is “an area known as an island of peace in a sometimes troubled region.”

That sounded promising. Unfortunately for AUN, the first google result this morning for Yola says otherwise. 😦 Sorry AUN.

Google Results for Yola Nigeria this morning.

On vocabulary and observation at the ASSA (a little late, but you know what they say…)

As a first-time job market candidate, the annual ASSA meetings every January are stressful and busy and kind of terrible, but as I’ve gone more and more, I’ve realized they’re kind of awesome. My two favorite events are the CSWEP mentoring breakfast and the CU reception, but everywhere you go, you’re running into people you want to have a conversation with, people you haven’t seen in a year or more, people who want to ask you something or share something exciting. I spent most of the weekend hearing about cool papers, having great conversations about economics, and seeing people I care about. I’m a big fan, turns out.

Even if it’s 0 degrees F and we’re all tromping around in the snow that the city won’t clear.

But I digress. One of the other events I was excited for this time around was the T. Schulz memorial lecture put on by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. I like ag economists.

The lecture was given by Michael Kremer of Harvard. It wasn’t a traditional lecture in the sense there wasn’t much talk of big ideas or themes. He really just presented a new paper, which was a bit disappointing, but, taken at face value, ultimately interesting.

The paper was trying to ascertain the extent to which asset-collateralized debt would be successful in an experimental setting in East Africa (yes, likely a community that has seen plenty of these interventions). Most of the debt we take on in the US is asset collateralized, if you don’t pay your car loan, they take your car, for instance, but it’s not like that in many other parts of the world. Collateral for loans, especially small loans, often comes in the form of guarantees from family or neighbors, or some cash reserve itself, or sometimes none at all. So, asking whether individuals saw these loan as different is an interesting question if someone is trying to institute them.

Perhaps the most important result is that people were paying back their loans, and not only paying them back, but paying them back early, which Kremer attributed to debt aversion.

As Kremer started in on his preliminary results, the first things I heard were not his interpretation, but rather whispers from all sides around me.

“Neighborhood effects.”

“Peer effects.”

“Why should we think debt aversion is driving this behavior?” There seemed to be a consensus, at least in my part of the audience, that individuals were paying back their debts not because they disliked having debt, per se, but that they thought it made them look bad in the eyes of their neighbors. Some of the first questions following the lecture pertained to the interpretation of the observations.

Two ideas immediately came to my mind during this exchange. The first has to do with quantum physics and how when we observe something, we change it. The second is that many of the whispers around me could be re-interpreted as a discussion of social norms. In the peer effects interpretation, borrowers could see their peers repaying and thus be more likely to repay. And in the social norms sense, borrowers could perceive that having debt is not seen well by the community and thus be more likely to repay. It seems that much of the debate could have been settled by a survey question or two regarding attitudes about debt, social norms around debt, and the perception of debt aversion on a community level. “What percentage of people in this community pay their debts on time?” or “How are people who don’t pay their debts treated in this community?” Or something like that.

It strikes me that the language economists and other social scientists use to explain similar phenomena are often very different. Also, it seems that Kremer could have fairly quickly disabused his critics of their notions had he conducted at least a little surveying on debt aversion and social norms.

Job Listing of the Month

Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit simple minded, but I never fail to be amazed by globalization. My favorite job listing from the November JOE is for openings, three to be precise, at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. The best part is that it’s so matter-of-fact. There’s no need for qualifiers, just “competitive pay” and an “annual research grant”. Wouldn’t it be so simple?

Oh, the wiki

When I went on the job market for the first time two years ago, I was advised not to consult the economics job market rumors forum. Given that I had no idea what it was, I immediately went and consulted it, only to have my spirit broken by the rank misogyny, stress, and trolling that dominated the forum. EJMR is still full of a lot of that crap, but it’s growing up in a way that I think has the potential to be beneficial to economists and the economics profession.

In particular, EJMR this year redid “the wiki”, or the crowd-sourced table of calls made to applicants on the job market each November and December. The redesign, and incorporation into the EJMR framework, has actually been incredibly user-friendly and informative. Yes, it sucks to hear that Dream University XYZ called someone and didn’t call you, but it’s really nice not to be waiting for them to call anymore. It’s anonymous, but usually updated incredibly rapidly. I’ve received emails or phone calls and went to check the wiki within minutes and seen it updated already.

More proof that EJMR has grown up a bit comes in the form of the recently added journal wiki, which I think is absolutely brilliant. Economics, from what I know, suffers from one of the longest (and most excruciating) publishing cycles in academia. My astrophysicist friends complain that their papers take eight months to get out and my eyes pop of my head. Try two years. Or three. The wiki itself is still kind of a jumble of information and lacks a good way to aggregate data. For instance, it would be useful to be able to find mean and median response times and see the number of entries for a given journal. The data is easily copied and pasted into Excel, so one could feasibly take all the information for a given journal and perform those quick data summaries oneself. Though it would strip away some of the anonymity, it would also be nice to know where those papers were eventually published. But perhaps I’m asking too much.

The journal wiki is similar to the jobs wiki in that it’s anonymous, crowd-sourced, and voluntary. The big difference is that while one school made 20-30 phone calls and only one person had to post the outcome, each journal submission and rejection is separate. You can’t rely on another person’s entering your rejection. The journal wiki poses a larger free-rider problem because each of piece of information is only controlled by a single individual (or author group). I imagine that despite the collective action problem, it will still gets high levels of participation. In fact, it’s already quite filled out and has only been up a few days.

I’m all for more information. I’m all for making publishers and referees more accountable. I also wonder if it won’t push some better papers to lesser known journals. With a clear time-to-publication advantage, lower-ranked journals could attract better papers and upset the hegemonic closed circle that tends to dominate the highly ranked, very slow to publish journals. It could also damn those papers to obscurity, but it will be interesting to see if it has any effect on overall response times and time-to-publication.

Job lising of the month

I’m wrapping up my job-applying, at least for the big pre-December 1 deadline push, and am now mostly in the process of looking back at jobs I didn’t apply for in places I’d really like to live. Unsurprisingly, Denver is one of the places, and despite an apparent hiring spree by Colorado schools this year, I’m not a particularly good fit for the faculty positions that are open.

I’m curious, though, if there’s actually anyone who fits this University of Denver opening for an assistant professor of Economics: “Must show promise of distinction in research and publications in the fields of the Chinese economy, environmental economics, and feminist economics.” (emphasis mine.)

Not just heterodox, but feminist, examining questions of environment, and concentrated in an area where those that run the economy are largely indifferent to both feminist and environmental concerns. It kind of boggles the mind. I’m really curious to see who they end up hiring. In fact, I’d like to meet her; she sounds like a rockstar.