This is the second in a recurring series of interviews where the PhD students at The Graduate Center talk with economists and other social scientists about their work and research experience. With these interviews the students are exploring the challenges of formulating good research questions and establishing a research agenda. Hopefully, other early career researchers will find this series a helpful tool.
In this installment, Goncalo Costa, a PhD of economics at The Graduate Center interviews John Roemer, Professor of Political Science and Economics at Yale University who visited the department on February 3rd, speaking to a paper called “What is Socialism Today.”
The two discuss John’s recent work on a theoretical comparison of the efficiency and equity consequences of capitalism and socialism and look back to John’s experience as a PhD student and young scholar.
One survey of professional economists in the United States found that 93% would agree with the claim that restrictions on free trade through tariffs and import quotas would reduce economic welfare.
Yet, I’m certain those advocating for free trade are often accused of having a blind spot. Is there something in the economic method, which can legitimately lay claim to being scientific, that also blinds its practitioners to what others see so clearly?
Scarcity is a simple idea, yet it has major implications.
If, as individuals or as a society, we have multiple objectives, and if our desires for these goals exceed the time and resources that can be used to attain them, then given that these resources can be used in different ways it matters how we allocate them. It matters because our goals differ in their significance.
We have to choose, we have to recognize the terms of the trade-offs between the choices available to us, and we have to do this in a way that gets us as much as we possibly can from the scarce resources available to us.
The economic way of thinking gives us guideposts for making these choices, most notably that we should pursue an objective up to the point that the additional benefit we get from taking an extra step toward it just equals the additional cost in all the things we have to give up in making that step.
Economics certainly should not inform all public policy discussions.
But when it should and doesn’t, the decisions made are usually done from an overly short-term perspective, are not mutually consistent, generally have hidden or unintended consequences, and are not sustainable in the long-term.
In the next two lectures of our course Economics for Everyone we detail the logic of scarcity, the rules it implies for maximizing our social benefit, and the pitfalls that sometimes confound policy makers. Scarcity also takes us toward a discussion of an important policy, “Free Trade,” and our discussion also helps us highlight some of the blind spots of simplistic economic reasoning.
Download the presentation for Lectures 2 and 3, but if you want to prepare in an entertaining way listen to Billy Bragg sing out his thoughts on Free Trade, a 2010 song from Britain foreshadowing many of the debates that have motivated recent American policies.
Here are the lyrics, but I’ve added a quote from another famous economist, David Ricardo, who has a very different view. Our goal is to understand these two competing perspectives on the benefits and costs of Free Trade.
This is the first of a recurring series of interviews where the PhD students at The Graduate Center talk with economists and other social scientists about their work and research experience. With these interviews the students are exploring the challenges of formulating good research questions and establishing a research agenda. Hopefully, other early career researchers will find this series a helpful tool.
Alan Krueger did everything an economist should aspire to achieve: strong research grounded in a solid understanding of theory and statistical method; framed to uncover facts important to the way people lead their lives, to the challenges they face; and communicated to resonate among policy makers, compelling them to do better for their citizens.
Writing in 1924, upon the death of his teacher and mentor Alfred Marshall, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes said that the “study of economics does not seem to require any specialised gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with … philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject at which very few excel !”
I have a new job! During the 2017 calendar year I am the “Economist in Residence” at Employment and Social Development Canada. I report to the Deputy Minister of this very large federal government department responsible for the major threads in Canada’s social safety net—insurance, investment, and income distribution that enhance capabilities and opportunities promoting the freedom Canadians have to lead the lives they value.
Jean-Yves Duclos is the Minister responsible, and his mandate letter is full of challenges, not least of which involves leading the development of a Canadian “Poverty Reduction Strategy,” and improving the Employment Insurance program to reflect the changing nature of work.
I report directly to the Deputy Minister of Employment and Social Development Canada, and my position is formally structured as an “interchange” with the University of Ottawa, where I will return in 2018. You can think of me as being on “loan” from my university to the public service.
The “Economist in Residence” is a new position in this department, but is modeled on a longstanding program at the Department of Finance called the “Clifford Clark Visiting Economist.” This program invites outside experts to visit the Department of Finance and work on relevant public policy issues that depend on department priorities, and also mesh with the visitor’s skills and interests. My appointment is an instance of another department doing something similar, at least for one year.
The Canadian public service is organized very differently than in the United States, where political appointments lead to a major churning of senior levels as each new government starts its mandate. This does not happen at all to the same degree in Canada, leading to greater continuity among senior management and a non-partisan basis for hiring and promotion. Some people see this as a great advantage, fostering a professional public service, but others also note some downsides, stressing the importance and value of renewal.
My job description asks me “to provide rigorous and objective advice on a range of key policy issues.” This is a refreshing opportunity, and it is exactly what I intend to do. Indeed, rigorous and objective advice is the tone I have tried to set on this blog, so if you are curious to know more about me—where I stand, how I think, what I’m interested in—feel free to read on!