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Comments on economics research 1

John Quiggin writes that academic prestige (and academic employment) these days go mostly to those who publish a small number of high-quality articles in highly-ranked journals. Moreover, as a general proposition, the narrower the field of specialization of this research, the better the ranking.  For such researchers second-tier, more generalist publications are worse than valueless since breadth is something actively unsought. John identifies himself as an academic who produces lots of research in many fields – as a generalist.  (John has, in fact, completed specialized research in the economics of risk that some believe is foundational in economics.  Incidentally the key basic ideas in this work occurred towards the start of John’s career, something I return to below).

In a recent post I referred to Ben Jones’ work on innovation.  Jones claims that technological innovation in society, more generally, can be expected to become more difficult because the “low hanging fruit have already been picked. Indeed this means that the prospects for future economic growth, in economies such as the US, are pessimistic.  This idea has a particular application – which Jones identifies – for thinking about the character of research within universities, This explains the bias towards specialization that Quiggin observes among university researchers.

As the knowledge of university researchers accumulates, successive generations of researchers face an increasing educational burden.  While new researchers can compensate by lengthening the time they spend making educational investments (PhD’s by coursework, post-doc research are one manifestation of this, specialist not generalist seminars/academic conferences are another) and by narrowing fields of focus, these responses come at the cost of reducing individual innovative capacities because of a greater reliance on teamwork and increased dependence on prior work.  People can then only become innovative at greater ages and there is some diminution of innovative potential with aging – certainly the case with me although I think I am sometimes quicker to resolve issues because my accumulated experience helps.

Certainly research in economics has become narrower in the sense of being more specialized.  It takes years to develop a facility in a particular branch of economics – international or public economics for example – and, even then, the research that is implemented is likely to be less exciting and less productivity increasing – it is often technique-intensive and often draws heavily on data sets and simulation.

Sometimes mastery of technique is used to present a faux broadness of perspective with issues from a range of areas of economics being addressed via the prism of a single approach. Often this type of work is very narrow and fails to advance insight much.  Sometimes people try to do research without reading the existing literature and rediscover the wheel – that’s probably not such a bad scattergun approach although it can be annoying to have to referee this stuff and play the iterated game of sorting the message out.  Finally, sometimes people who do this research often never seemed to have relaxed with a beer and thought generally about the topic they envisage.  They have never exercised their whole brain on an issue – by, for example, discussing it using ordinary language.   They see the trees than obstruct an insect vision but fail to see the forest.

Specialized research is also likely to attract smaller audiences of interest and to be more boring for most members of the economics profession.  Indeed one of my major beefs about a lot of economic research that I glance through these days (“read” would be too strong a word here) is that it has low consumption value – important to someone as increasingly selective as I have become – I want to enjoy my economics and to consume it as well as produce it.  I often don’t enjoy reading modern economic papers (and I often do so with less than intensive care) because the conclusions offered seem to provide a meagre reward for piling through an elaborate mathematical architecture.   Indeed the conclusions “section” in many modern papers is often an almost embarrassing afterthought as the conclusions are often extremely slender in scope.

The long and short of it is that research that fills in small gaps is to me less entertaining than research that addresses big questions. The low consumption values are not just an issue of aesthetics but are closely related to the low marginal product of the research.  It often does demonstrate muscle-flexing technical skill but often not a lot of insight.

Take a recent practical example from recent macroeconomic research. Responses to the recent financial crisis have largely hinged on the Keynesian economic debates that have occurred for fifty years – the role of autonomous spending as a driver of economic activity and so on.   Modern developments in macroeconomics seem to throw little additional light on these issues although the microeconomics of information have thrown considerable light on the origins of the crisis.  It takes the genius of a writer like Stiglitz to advance some basic insights – the macroeconomics technical heavies put their audiences to sleep by providing at best low-valued insights.

Presenting these views on economics tends to produce two sorts of responses from younger colleagues making the arduous climb up the promotion ladder. One is a sympathetic kind of acknowledgement of the impact of aging on my reasoning abilities – the ‘silly old fart thesis” – indeed this is consistent with the Jones argument developed above – and I am an “old fart”.  The other response is often partial acceptance of the argument but recognition of the real politics of gaining promotion and status.  I am very sympathetic to the second type of argument and somewhat so to the first.  It is easy to be a smart-ass on these issues.

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