Conference Report

The Society's Annual Conference took place this year at the University of Swansea Swansea, April 5-7. This report on the event was contributed by David Warsh who was for many years economics columnist of The Boston Globe. He now writes weekly at www.economicprincipals.com.

The invitation to attend the Royal Economic Society meetings as an observer in April 2004 seemed a welcome assignment. As an economic journalist, I specialized in reporting for American newspapers on the production and distribution of economic knowledge that took place mainly in universities, but in other venues as well. In this connection, I had attended all but two of the American Economics Association meeting since 1975. (‘Covered’ is too strong a verb, since rarely did these meetings generate much news.)

Over the years I had formed a mental picture of the RES as well, mainly on the basis of reading the Economic Journal, the proud old scientific journal whose pattern of citation frequency increased backward instead of forward in time. I was spending the first half of the year at the American Academy in Berlin. It was only a time zone away. And soon enough I would be attempting to persuade economists, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, of the significance of the developments in growth theory that transpired, mostly in the United States, during the 1980s and 1990s. So why not go to Wales to see what was going on?

The trip to Swansea turned out to be somewhat disorienting. The general features of the meetings were familiar enough. The language of economics was the same. But there was something about the goings-on that I didn’t quite understand. I hadn’t reckoned on the difficulty of fitting into a framework what was being said by persons who for the most part I did not know. Mainly, it was the format was somewhat unfamiliar — the bewildering array of parallel sessions. The visit exposed great gaps in my knowledge of the emerging European economic scene. I found life in the recently-devolved Wales more interesting than anything going on inside the meeting rooms.

Economics and publicity
I remembered that I was a journalist and not an economist. I began to gather information about how the institution of the RES differed from that of the AEA, and how it had changed over the years. I spent some time thinking about the meetings in their present form.

The British Economic Association was formally organized in November, 1890, five years after its American counterpart opened for business. Among the founders of the AEA was Richard T Ely. In his autobiography (Ground Under Our Feet), he recalled ‘tramping through the rain’ with a friend down to the local Associated Press office after the first meeting ‘to see that we had such publicity as we both felt we deserved.’

In contrast, the BES arose amidst skirmishes in the late 1880s between economists at Oxford and Cambridge Universities over who would be the first to launch a professional journal. Oxford succeeded first with its Economic Review, but Cambridge succeeded best when it secured the editorship of the Economic Journal, to be published under the aegis of the British Society. But such was the tenderness of the situation that, at the inaugural meeting, Alfred Marshall enjoined his fellow economists to be restrained in their criticism of one another — all this according to the intellectual historian A W (Bob) Coats, who took Marshall's caution to be ‘a significant comment on the prevailing lack of professional self confidence’ at the time. For years thereafter, the executive committee of the association was reluctant to hold the kind of annual conferences with papers and discussions as did its American counterpart, even after winning a Royal Charter and changing its name to the RES in 1902.

A century later, the situation is reversed. The AEA is more or less indifferent to press coverage of its proceedings, of which there is little or none. But the RES has a talented and energetic press officer, whose duties include calling attention to its annual conference. Underneath, however, there are elements of continuity. From its shaky beginnings, the RES rose steadily in acclaim. It was never more prominent than in the 35 years between 1911 and 1946 during which John Maynard Keynes was editor of the EJ. Yet the three leading American journals — the Journal of Political Economy, the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the American Economic Review — never relinquished their leadership. And with the end of World War II it became apparent that the center of economic education had shifted decisively to the United States. There followed a long period of relative decline in Britain’s universities’ importance to the research consensus of the discipline, even as their colleges remained bright and lively places to teach and learn.

By the early 1980s, a considerable resurgence had had taken place, especially in London, where the London School of Economics and University College once again had begun attracting top faculty and students from all over the world, but in the new universities and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish universities as well. Even Oxford and Cambridge were coming into the hands of a new generation of leaders. This very interesting story, or rather series of stories, is under-documented and too-little understood. Yet well into the 1980s, the RES meetings continued to be ill-attended and somewhat moribund.

This problem was solved by Frank Hahn of Cambridge University, during the rolling three-year term during which in he served as president of the RES. He did this by reaching out to the Association of University Teachers of Economics and persuading its major domo, A Robert Nobay, to combine the groups’ meetings and merge their organizations. The AUTE was a very different sort of organization from the RES. When its members met, it was mainly to uninhibitedly speak the language of economics; to build resumes by presenting papers, to compare notes, to chew the fat, to play. I was able to speak only briefly if at all to the principals. Hahn was lively but wheelchair-bound in Cambridge, former RES secretary general Aubrey Silberston was in Brussels, his successor Richard Portes in New York, and Nobay was teaching in Australia. But Hahn and Silberston agreed that it had been Hahn's initiative that led to a merger of the two meetings. The AUTE had a lively meeting of committed teachers and their students; the RES had deep pockets, from decades of investing in common stocks. This was the marriage that saved the RES meetings and made them what they are today.

The invited lectures
I was disappointed that no presidential address was given at the meetings. Such talks are a way of communicating shared values to members, and of charting organizations’ progress over time. Since RES presidents serve for three years at a time, however, such addresses are given only every third year. So four invited lectures took pride of place in Swansea. Each of these was highly interesting. Of the four, David Hendry’s report on ‘Automatic Model Selection’ was by far the most exciting — especially a demonstration I suspect that barely half the audience (not including me!) realized what he was doing when he fit a model for money demand before our eyes in real time. Hendry’s claims were very bold: ‘Just as the computer replaced the adding machine, as the adding machine replaced pencils and paper, automatic selection is going to do that for your generation.’ Maybe so. But general-to-simple approaches of the sort Hendry advocates are still controversial among econometricians. Some feel that too much knowledge of the world is ‘tacit’ and not easily codified to allow scientists to be so easily be replaced by a recipe. Such arguments about tools are common enough; as with the controversies about, say, the problem posed by heteroskedasticity in times-series data, or those among partisans of artificial intelligence and their detractors, they can take decades to resolve. But Hendry’s claims struck me as being the real news of the conference.

Caroline Hoxby and Douglas Bernheim reported on work in progress, Hoxby is perhaps near the end of her project on schools, Bernheim is at the beginning of game-theoretic work on the part that emotions may play in problems involving memory and anticipation.

Each is a leader in an ‘invisible college’ or researchers working at the uppermost level on a problem of global significance; each was working with a set of tools that could be shared by others and applied to a wide variety of related problems. Such talks by themselves must be worth the price of admission to many members. The admirable Willem Buiter, filling in for the absent Kenneth Rogoff, was the most charming of the lecturers - and the least compelling. That central banking has nothing to do with character and leadership? I doubted it.

The special sessions
The special sessions, on the other hand, were something of a disappointment. It was not that the presenters weren't interesting, but often than not they spoke at cross purposes. For example, the session featuring Marc Ivaldi of the Institut d'Economie Industrielle, Michael Katz of the University of California at Berkeley and Lars Hendrik Roller most recently of INSEAD had the makings of a first rate discussion panel. Katz and Ivaldi have played major roles in creating a new network economics; Roller, as chief economist for the European Union’s Competition Commission, has moved into the kind of senior policy job that Katz once held at the U S Federal Trade Commission. But instead of joining in a structured discussion, each of the three talked about papers whose applications were essentially unrelated — all too often talking past one another in mode which seemed to me to all too characteristic of the meetings.

Most satisfying to me was the session on women in economics. Lena Edlund of Columbia University has published two papers in the Journal of Political Economy. Her findings on the significance of individual consent in marriage were fresh (the difference in transaction costs among extended and nuclear families were a big part of the story). Alfonso Diez (‘Polygamy, Land and Labor’) and Berta-Esteve Volart (‘Gender Discrimination and Growth: Evidence from India’) had something to say as well. There was an underlying unity of approach. The discussion was lively. But the 57 parallel sessions, spread out over most of three days, often seemed little more than glorified poster sessions. The papers themselves I put in a drawer. I took them out again only two months later to see what had seemed important.

The parallel sessions
Alas, when I did, nothing much stood out — not because papers themselves were deficient, but because of the overall lack of context. The sessions seemed to me to have slighted the overall principle of consensus, which holds economists to the responsibility of moving, however slowly, in the direction of pinning things down. In the sessions I audited, presenters talked about what he or she had been doing, but generally made little effort to relate findings to the consensus of the community of experts in a given research area. There were few session chairs and fewer discussants. The discussion in the meeting rooms usually took a back seat to the vigorous discussions in corridors and the dining halls.

It occurred to me then that these were raw files. They were the work of talented young economists, most of them young and probably half of them Europeans — not at all the stuffy old Oxbridge types I had expected. These scholars’ departments had paid for them to attend the meetings, as long as they presented papers. It was a way to build resumes. The Society had gone to considerable lengths itself beforehand to comb submissions for interesting results, to write these up as press releases. But the meetings were for the most part an occasion for those who attended to talk among themselves. Almost deliberately, the sessions were of secondary interest

For its outreach, the RES has hit upon a very sound principle: to cull submissions for the most interesting papers, digest them and group them together in a series of press releases, to be presented to journalists in London in a session apart from the conference. This leaves members at the meetings free to talk economics among themselves with none of the impedance-matching devices that characterize the American meetings. That is both a gain and a loss, but it is a real difference.

Indeed, at a certain point I realized that the RES had become very much like a regional association meeting in the United States: the Eastern, Western, Southern, Midwest Associations. I often have thought that the valuable role that these annual get-togethers play in maintaining profession esprit de corps is not sufficiently widely understood. These are the people who teach economics, who review and integrate the findings made by its research professionals, who continue in many cases to play the game themselves. In the RES case, it includes many students on their way up. Such bright people, talking among themselves! But the excitement of such meetings will not get the detailed examination it deserves, not this year, not from me.

Humbled by my failure to get more out of the meetings as an outsider, I decided to invest my observer's honorarium on a membership, a trip to next year's meetings and a dormitory room.

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