Vital Signs

Plenty goes on at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association.  Some 10,600 persons turned out for this year’s  three-day session in San Francisco — the largest attendance in the 23,236-member organization’s history. “The economists  decided not to participate in the recession,” said John Siegfried, of Vanderbilt University, association secretary.

Newly-minted PhDs entered the workforce.  Coteries of researchers presented short reports to be printed in the meetings’ Papers and Proceedings,  to become part of the literature of the field.   Heroes were honored, authors  feted, old friends gathered for dinner.

The meetings are organized as much as a year in advance.  Their central business — those reports of new work deemed sufficiently important to merit publication — unfold with few surprises.  But big panels of celebrated economists discussing the pressing issues of the day always have an improvisational quality.  This year they were especially lively.

Thus Robert Hall, of Stanford University; Olivier Blanchard, of the International Monetary Fund; Alan Blinder, of Princeton University, Kenneth Rogoff, of Harvard University; Rober Shiller, of Yale University; and Susan Woodward, of Sandhill Economics; discussed the financial crisis.

Michael Spence, of Stanford University; Justin Lin, of the World Bank; Barry Naughton, of the University of California at San Diego; David Li, of Tsinghua University; Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University; Martin Feldstein, of Harvard University;  and Nicholas Stern, of the London School of Economics discussed the lessons to be derived from thirty years of rapid growth in China.

And Feldstein; Alan Auerbach, of the University of California at Berkeley; John Taylor, of Stanford University; and Janet Yellen, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of California, hashed over the sudden revival of interest in fiscal policy is the face of a  treacherous recession.

Virtually all their opinions eventually will find their way into op-ed pieces, speeches, policy papers and newspaper stories.  The greatest excitement was to be found in hotel corridors and small cafes, where friends traded tidbits about policies under discussion in Washington, and about government positions not yet filled.

The marquee names of the new administration — Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers, Christina Romer and Austan Goolsbee of the Council of Economic Advisers, Douglas Elmendorf of the Congressional Budget Office stayed in Washington to work.

So the only real news to emerge from the meetings was the decision by the AEA’s executive board to begin awarding its John Bates Clark Medal annually, instead of every two years.  The award, to the American economist under the age of 40  “adjudged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge,” was first given in 1947 to Paul Samuelson, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Virtually all Clark Medalists have become senior figures in the profession; many have won Nobel Prizes.  Several winners in recent years have been elevated to celebrity status.

“The profession has doubled in fifty years; we have more than enough really smart people to give it every every year,” said AEA president Angus Deaton, of Princeton University. “There is no reason that it should be more scarce than the economics Nobel Prize.”

The next winner will be announced in April.