Thoughts on Economics Seminars

My Twitter feed has recently been filled with people arguing about whether economics seminars are conducive to improving research in the field. For those unfamiliar with academic economics, our seminars tend to encourage active participation from the audience. While it varies across individuals, many economics professors have no problem interrupting a presentation to ask a question (or voice their displeasure) about something in your presentation. Fabio Ghironi, a professor at the University of Washington, recently compared economics seminars to a fencing match. Professors try to stab with you by asking you challenging questions about your models and methods and it is up to you to defend yourself.

I like this analogy and I think it perfectly describes my experience in macroeconomics at UCLA so far. Especially in the student seminars it is a rare occurrence to see somebody make it past their first slide without somebody chiming in. In general, I like this style of seminar. Rather than waiting until the end to answer a bunch of questions at once, it allows the presenter to deal with confusion and make clarifications as they go. Being forced to defend your work against criticism also helps make the parts that need improvement immediately clear.

I do see some problems with the current format of economics seminars, however. One issue arises when the questions seem aimed at proving the questioners intelligence rather than helping understand or improve the research. Especially for early work in progress where the paper is unpolished, too often have I seen audience members shaking their heads or making faces at ideas that are undeveloped but might still have potential. I think I am probably guilty of this as well. Another problem is when questions try to anticipate the rest of the presentation. The introduction slide should not be the place to figure out the identification strategy or the specifics of the model.

The biggest problem though is that being a good researcher and being able to sell your work in a presentation are not necessarily correlated. Many people are great at coming up with ideas and writing down interesting models, but not so good at presenting these ideas in a way that convinces other people that they are interesting. Of course, there is some truth to the idea that if you cannot present your idea well it may actually just not be that interesting, but the opposite is also true. Do we want economics to be dominated by used car salesmen that can make any idea sound great in an hour long seminar? Confidence and the ability to think on your feet are certainly valuable skills for any job, but shouldn’t they be less important for researchers whose goal is to seek out the truth, not just sell their own idea?

Too often it seems that communication ability and value as a researcher are conflated. But if we really want economics to stand as a science beside physics and chemistry (I’m not sure we do, but some people seem to want to), then we should avoid making this mistake. Research should be judged based on how well it improves our understanding of the real world. If a paper makes accurate predictions or useful methodological advances it shouldn’t matter if it’s presented or even written well or not.

The obvious objection to this point is that if research cannot be communicated well, how do we know if it’s good or not? We can’t carefully read every paper and spend time figuring out what it really means. A presentation is supposed to provide a quick overview of the main results to prove that the full paper is actually worth reading. How can we keep this benefit without throwing out good research done by poor presenters?

My solution is to separate research and the communication of research. Why does the person that wrote the model or collected the data have to be the one that presents it? It seems to me that current economics academics actually have two jobs. First, they have to write a paper that they know is interesting, often with fancy math that is difficult to understand for anyone not closely related to their field. Their second job is then to convince others that their idea is worth looking at, explaining complex ideas in a short amount of time to those who aren’t heavily invested in the literature. Why do both of these jobs have to be done by the same person? Manufacturers hire marketing firms to sell their product. Why can’t economists do the same thing?

One way around this problem comes through co-authoring papers. By forming a pair where at least one author is a relatively good communicator, researchers who lack communication skills can leverage their other skills and still be successful. However, this strategy can’t work for students looking to be hired since they need to prove they have value as a researcher on their own. With a co-authored paper it is impossible to tell how much each of the authors actually contributed. But what if they could hire somebody just to present? The economist writes the model, deals with the data, and produces all of the results. The presenter then turns that into something others can understand and evaluate.

I can see why some people wouldn’t like this setup. There is something pure about research being an individual project from start to finish. Coming up with a great idea, answering it in a clever way, and then explaining it to colleagues in the best possible way. But the goal of the profession should not be to find the most well-rounded researcher, but to advance our understanding of economics. If good ideas are being pushed aside simply because they aren’t communicated well enough, we should do everything we can to correct that.

Blackboard Economics and the Coase Theorem

Introductory economics is often criticized for providing an overly idealized version of the world. The price system functions perfectly, markets are competitive, and information is freely available. A well known result from microeconomics, the First Welfare Theorem, says that under certain assumptions, a competitive equilibrium is Pareto efficient. Government intervention in the market cannot make anybody better off without making somebody else worse off. Critics of neoclassical economics point out that the conditions under which this result holds are incredibly unrealistic. As soon as those assumptions are relaxed, the door opens for government to improve upon the market.

The classic example of these kinds of “market failure” are externalities like pollution where the total cost to society is more than the private cost faced by the producer. Our modern treatment of such problems in introductory classes is essentially unchanged from Pigou’s analysis of the problem almost 100 years ago in The Economics of Welfare. He outlined a simple solution to the problem of externalities. If producers impose costs (like pollution or noise) on others through their production activities, we can simply tax them to force them to internalize the social cost of their actions. Unlike standard taxes that introduce inefficiencies to a market economy, these “Pigovian taxes” actually improve efficiency.

Much of economics tends to follow a similar pattern. We begin with the perfect world, the benchmark economy of full information and a perfectly competitive economy. We then show that relaxing some of these assumptions, putting in asymmetric information, or monopoly power, or externalities, can mess up this perfect benchmark. Finally, we outline how government can solve these problems. The left loves to complain about how we too often stop at step 1 (especially in intro courses) and forget about all the problems of markets that government really needs to fix.

I also take issue with this kind of economics, but for a different reason. To understand my view, we need to take a look at an incredibly famous, but sometimes misunderstood paper, called “The Problem of Social Cost” by Ronald Coase.

Coase begins his paper by responding to Pigou. He shows, in several numerical examples, that Pigovian taxes or other government solutions are entirely unnecessary if the price system functions costlessly. This argument has been summarized in what is now known as “The Coase Theorem.” Private actors will always find the most efficient solution as long as transaction costs are not too high. Although perhaps unintuitive at first, Coase’s intuition is actually quite simple. If bargaining is costless, there is no reason why private agents wouldn’t be able to work out a solution that is beneficial for everyone. I recommend reading the article for many numerical examples of how this kind of bargaining could work to produce an outcome just as good as that produced by the Pigovian solution.

Unfortunately, most discussions of Coase tend to stop there. Supporters of free markets use Coase to argue against any form of government intervention. Detractors respond that of course transaction costs are not zero and therefore Pigovian solutions are still needed. Both sides miss Coase’s broader point. As Deirdre McCloskey puts it, “Something like a dozen people in the world understand that the “Coase” theorem is not the Coase theorem…One of this select few is Ronald Coase himself so I expect we blessed few are right.”

Here’s what I think is a better “Coase theorem” (from Coase’s paper): “All solutions have costs and there is no reason to suppose that government regulation is called for simply because the problem is not well handled by the market or the firm. Satisfactory views on policy can only come from a patient study of how, in practice, the market, firms and governments handle the problem of harmful effects”

Coase’s use of a world without transaction costs was not an attempt to make a statement about the real world, but rather to demonstrate the emptiness of doing analysis in a world without transaction costs. His article serves a deeper purpose than simply a criticism of Pigou’s treatment of externalities. It more importantly acts as a response to what Coase called “blackboard economics.” He thought the exercise of comparing “a state of laissez-faire and some kind of ideal world” to be entirely pointless. Economics without some consideration of the set of institutions, of the laws and the legal system that govern agents actions, is just an analysis of some imaginary world that will never exist. He wanted to bring economics back to reality.

For Coase, “a better approach would seem to be to start our analysis with a situation approximating that which actually exists, to examine the effects
of a proposed policy change and to attempt to decide whether the new situation would be, in total, better or worse than the original one. In this way, conclusions for policy would have some relevance to the actual situation.”

Shifting lines on a blackboard makes for nice undergraduate exercises. It is less useful for real policy analysis. Coase’s approach is less elegant. Blackboard economics gives nice simple answers to a wide range of policy questions. Unfortunately those answers don’t always tell us much about the much more complicated questions of the real world.

Coase’s argument against blackboard economics is essentially the same as Hayek’s criticisms of economic analysis. If we assume away all the hard stuff like who sets prices and who possesses knowledge of relevant economic information then of course we can come up with solutions to all sorts of economic problems. But those answers only hold in a world that looks nothing like our own and more importantly in a world where those policy choices are completely unnecessary in the first place. To get any kind of policy answers that our actually relevant for the world we actually live in, we occasionally need to ask these much harder questions about institutions and the economic environment in which economic actions take place.