Meetings of economists reflect our culture

I attended the American Economic Association meetings in Chicago this past weekend. On my way home, a fellow Amtrak passenger asked if we came up with a way to fix the economy. I had to tell her that we had not, but hundreds of economists presented and discussed academic papers, many of which dealt with our economic woes.

The more I thought about our conversation, the more I wondered: What are The Meetings (as economists call them) all about? I eventually realized that, no matter how you look at it, The Meetings are a trade show: a trade show for publishers, job candidates, and most of all, for the profession itself. We weren’t there to solve the world’s problems, we were there to sell.

The textbook trade
If you want to see what’s up in academic publishing generally and economics textbooks in particular, this is the place to be. Dozens of publishers, software firms, think tanks and government agencies from around the world set up booths to show off their wares. Tables groan with new books, computer monitors project the latest and greatest statistical packages and databases, sales reps show professors why their book (and its computer supplements) is better than a competitor’s text.

Paul Krugman
Paul Krugman

They even get celebrity economists to draw visitors. Look, there’s Paul Krugman at the Worth Publishing booth. Steve Levitt of “Freakonomics” is there too introducing his new book (written with former Obama economic adviser Austen Goolsbee). Joseph Stiglitz (former Clinton economic adviser) is over at the W.W. Norton display, and a sign says that Greg Mankiw (former Bush economic adviser) will be at the Cengage booth tomorrow. Hey, they have wine over at that table; there’s cheesecake at that one; come one, come all!

None of this is cheap, and is a small part of why college textbooks are expensive. There is a trade show like this one at every large professional meeting and the publishers have to build these costs into the prices of their books. It’s not a lot, but it does add up.

The Job Market
Ever wonder how an economist gets a job? Here is how it works: hundreds of colleges, universities, research institutes, investment banks and other employers meet thousands of graduate students and recent PhDs at The Meetings for The Job Market.

The Job Market consists of face-to-face, 30- to 60-minute interviews between job candidates and potential employers. The candidates talk about their research, why it’s interesting and important, and how they’ll be a good or even great teacher. The employers listen, describe their schools and companies and tell the candidates how great it will be to work for them. Candidates will sometimes have 12 to 15 interviews in the course of four days, while employers might do as few as six or as many as 25 interviews in day.

Most schools and companies conduct their interviews in a large ballroom filled with tables. This year there were 139 tables in two ballrooms at the Palmer House; the institutions ranged from the College of Saint Benedict | Saint John’s University and the University of Minnesota, Morris, to such banks such as J.P. Morgan Chase. The employers came from dozens of countries, including the United States, Canada, China, Kuwait, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, and Turkey.

Usually, employers and candidates schedule meetings in advance. However, you will also see forlorn candidates walking among the tables with their resumes, asking if an employer might have a few minutes to talk to them about a position, hoping that they will get lucky and snag a chance to show why they would be a great fit for your position. I look at their faces and see the exhaustion, watch them slump into chairs at the edge of the ballroom, and hope that things work out for them. These job candidates are selling themselves as much as the publishers but are making a whole lot less money.

Oh, and research presentations, too
You might have noticed that I haven’t said anything yet about the hundreds of academic papers presented during the meetings. (You can see the entire agenda here and download copies of the papers here.) This was the original reason why these kinds of meetings were held, so that scholars could meet and discuss their work.

It is still an important component, but is becoming less so as the web and other forms of electronic communication spread throughout academia and business. Yes, I could attend a session in Chicago with four papers on innovation policy. But I can just as easily download the papers in St. Cloud, read them in Collegeville, and discuss them with others via research blogs.

So attending bread-and-butter research presentations is declining. Instead, all-star panels and offbeat topics are starting to proliferate. See Paul Krugman debate tax policy with Greg Mankiw! Listen to Barry Eichengreen and others dissect the euro crisis! Come to the music session (classical, jazz and rock played by groups of economists) or the humor session (hear Paul Krugman discuss his paper on intergalactic trade)! This is the kind of stuff you can’t do on the internet, and even if you could it’s more fun to attend in person.

Selling, selling, selling
Is this what’s it’s come to? Do we have to sell the profession on itself? I got the feeling that presenting and talking about good research and better ways of teaching are taking a back seat to selling. Selling the latest software or textbook; selling an employer on your abilities as an economist; selling economists on how cool economists can be (be like Paul Krugman!).

Maybe I’m just cranky and tired after a long weekend of interviews. But I’ve been going to The Meetings most years since 1989 and something felt different this time, something that told me that the work itself and the problems that we need to deal with in the real world were floating away. In their place, money, celebrity and a desperate search for employment on the part of new PhDs was taking their place. I hope I’m wrong.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/11/2012 - 09:33 am.

    Remember that famous quote, attributed to Karl Rove?

    …That’s not the way the world really works anymore–we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do….

    Well, I think it may more appropriately be applied to economists and their powerlessness with respect to predicting and shaping the future.

    The fundamental splits in economics with respect to basic cause and effect are not characteristics of any “science”.

    Economics in the US is characterized by a fetishism of an anomalous 30 year period from the late 40’s to the 70’s. That period had the US at the top of the heap, leading to the fundamental guiding assumption that the “economy” is best represented by a spinning gyroscope that will return to trend regardless of how it is tipped and buffeted.

    The basic changes from that period have been lost to many and provide no roadmap into the unexplored world of the world economy future with its new limits.

    So the economists trail behind, studying the new realities.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/11/2012 - 10:07 am.

    Ah, finally an honest cynic here.Wow…nice.

    Well, what more can one say…the ‘economy’ and ‘presidential hopefuls’ are skipping along, hand-in-hand like the Bobbsey Twins; facial look-a-likes indeed, grinning dollar signs?

    Or maybe it’s Jack and Jill, selling the economy; and buying the presidency?

    Does it matter anymore…as we come tumbling after?

    Somebody’s old proverb…It is a wise snail that travels by rail and sees things more clearly.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/11/2012 - 10:59 am.

    A pity, really, that it’s only a trade show, selling the profession. Especially since online communications (e.g., forums) are artificially rude and shallow (hey, you can’t be justifiably punched in the nose for being a jerk online), and celebrity economics on TV is meant to be inflammatory, not useful.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/11/2012 - 12:09 pm.

    It’s instructive that even the anti-capitalist economists like Krugman were at The Meetings to engage in a little, you know, capitalism.

  5. Submitted by Aaron Sinner on 01/11/2012 - 02:44 pm.

    The Meetings sounds sort of like one of those comics and movies conventions.

    Econ Con, anyone?

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 01/11/2012 - 05:14 pm.

    It would be wonderful if governments could follow Keynes’ advice, but the problem isn’t politicians; it’s the people. It’s democracy. The people would throw a fit if when good economic times hit Congress raised taxes and cut spending. Mainstream economists and the media would pile on screaming that Congress was trying to kill the recovery.

    As long as we live in a democracy we’ll have to put up with pro-cyclical policies from the government.

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