Report from the ASSA Conference

I attended this year’s ASSA conference in Philadelphia. The big story for most attendees was the weather, with a big winter storm leading to delayed and cancelled flights and trains, missed connections, and a slight damper on enthusiasm. It is a huge conference with several thousand participants and hundreds of sessions, panels, receptions, and other events. As you can imagine, with that much activity, the activities included the good, the bad, and the ugly. For most attendees the highlights were probably the speeches by Bernanke and current AEA president Claudia Goldin and lively give-and-take between Larry Summers and John Taylor. (My sympathies lie with Taylor.) I presented a paper on university business incubators, showing that their contributions to innovation and entrepreneurship may be more modest than advertised. Many Austrian economists attend the conference but the Austrian school is not, unfortunately, well represented on the program.

Much of the conference activities take place behind the scenes, as hundreds of colleges and universities interview huge numbers of job-market candidates in hotel suites, lounges, and cattle pens. (Just kidding about the last.) It’s a well-organized market about which much has been written (the AEA even tries to incorporate some economic theory into its market design). The overall experience for students (and recruiters) is highly variable (though not, apparently, as bad as with the Modern Language Association).

I met several young Austrian economists who are looking for jobs, or have recently secured them and are moving their way along the tenure track. This is all to the good, of course. However, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in recent years, in which young Austrians seem less interested in the substance of their work than in how it will be received; their emphasis is on “playing the game” rather than seeking the truth. You also hear this said of the movement as a whole; unless Austrians get better at playing the game, our movement is in trouble. I’m reminded of Joe Salerno’s distinction between “professional” and “vocational” economists. Of course, Austrians seeking careers in academia need jobs and should be encouraged to follow the appropriate professional steps to market and distribute their work, to improve their teaching, and to maximize their chances at professional success. But we do not measure the health of our movement solely by PhDs granted, positions secured, or articles published.

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