Under the Big Top

CHICAGO — I pored over the program of the Allied Social Science Associations,  looking for a panel devoted to Russia, the topic uppermost on my mind. (I’m interested in the thinking behind the Russian intervention.)  The closest I came was a session on the persistent effects of culture and institutions. It had been organized by James Robinson, Director of the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the Harris School of Public Policy of the University of Chicago (not dean of the school, as asserted earlier) and author,  with Daron Acemoglu, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Crown, 2012).

That produced an especially interesting paper, A Theory of Minimal Democracy, by Francesco Trebbi, of the University of British Columbia, Chris Bidner, of Simon Fraser University, and Patrick Francois, also of UBC. Trebbi distinguished between relatively robust democracies, extending  all or most of the familiar complement of rights  to non-elites — to  vote; to form and join associations; to be protected by the rule of law, and by a free press — and those states long known as minimalist democracies These hold regular elections, which may be hotly contested,  but otherwise offer ordinary citizens relatively little else.  They are widely distributed around the world but little understood: competitive autocracies, non-redistributive democractizations, captives of  the resource curse. Clearly Russia is one. The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Indonesia, Nepal, Moldova, and Mongolia are others.

A major question is how they change.  Does deep culture dominate?  Or might institutions — elections, for example — become self-enforcing?  Questions like this one are at the heart of the contretemps with Russia: Vladimir Putin apparently believes that Hillary Clinton, as US Secretary of State, sought to foment dissent in Russia in 2011, when he ran for a third term as president. Maybe she did.  A new sub-discipline of political economy, revivified by Acemoglu and Robinson,  Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini, and many others,  has much to say about the issue, but has only just begun to train a new generation of area experts.

The territory of economics has exploded in the last fifty years, the American Economic Review, which once decorously appeared but five times a year, now arrives with a pound or two of new material every  month.  The Journal of Economic Literature, established to keep non-specialists abreast of the steadily broadening stream of publications,  is approaching fifty;  the Journal of Economic Perspectives, designed to communicate developments to an interested lay audience, is  celebrating thirty years; four new field journals publish new work in microeconomics, macroeconomics, applied economics, and economic policy. And those are just the organs of the American Economic Association. Universities publish distinguished journals, too, as do other associations, societies, and commercial publishers.

A new entrant, The Annual Review of Economics,  has begun to impinge on this established universe slightly since it first appeared, eight years ago.  The first Annual Review — of Biochemistry — appeared in 1932. The enterprise proved so successful that the independent publishers who started it prepare today 41 collections of critical surveys of tightly focussed disciplines — including the Annual Review of Financial Economics and the Annual Review of Resource Economics. Established by Kenneth Arrow and Timothy Bresnahan, both of Stanford University, editing of ARE this year passed to Philippe Aghion, of the College de France, and Helene Rey, of London Business School..  

By providing more and somewhat higher-level surveys of new important findings and new tools, the ARE has forced, or freed,  JEL editor Steven Durlauf, of the University of Wisconsin,  to cast his net more widely. The JEP, where  Enrico Moretti, of the University of California at Berkeley, has replaced David Autor, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now seems more newsy than ever. As for the AER, I zero-in to see what’s new when the mammoth Papers and Proceedings record of the annual meeting arrives in May. Because it offers rapid publication  of lightly-vetted articles deemed important, it regularly contains the first reports of inquiries that lead in due course to fault lines and fractures in received wisdom — hence to further spreading of the disciplinary tent.  

The meetings themselves still fufill the basic functions. The incoming president and his program committee organize the sessions that are to be published in the Proceedings; he or she invites the Ely lecturer, too.  President this year was Nobel laureate Alvin Roth, of Stanford University, an exponent of market design; he chose Esther Duflo, of MIT, who spoke about “The Economist as Plumber: Large-Scale Experiment to Inform the Details of Policy-Making.”  Next year Olivier Blanchard will preside, having stepped down from eight years as chief economist of the International Monetary Fund.  

A luncheon honored Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, of Princeton University.  The John Bates Clark Medal was presented, to Yuliy Sannikov, of Stanford University.  Four Distinguished Fellows of the Association were recognized: Richard Freeman, of Harvard University; Glenn Loury, of Brown University; Julio Rotemberg, of  Harvard Business School; and Isabel Sawtell, of the Brookings Institution. The exhibit hall bustled a little less than usual, perhaps at the news  that Peter Dougherty, a famous economics editor, would soon retire as director of the Princeton University Press.

Robert Shiller, of Yale University, gave the presidential lecture, “Narrative Economics.”  He told the audience, “Narratives matter for human thinking, and they ought to matter for economics.” I think so too. There are too few of them.  But there’s no time for narrative at the ASSA.

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