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I returned from Pittsburgh where we had the annual meeting of the AAEA (Agricultural and Applied Economics Association). I had never been to Pittsburgh before; the city is not so exciting but it is efficient and pleasant and the highlight of the city are the three rivers. There were some impressive bridges and our hotel was one of those classic hotels that are still well maintained. Since I am on a low-carb diet, I was worried food availability but I was surprised see the low-carb friendly meals in the hotel and altogether a lot of choices.
The highlight of the meeting for me was the award ceremony where I escorted Betty, who became a fellow of the AAEA. This is an honor that Betty well deserves. She is one of the top development economists in the world, and her research provided practical solutions to basic problems. I have seen the book ‘ Quantitative Development Analysis’ she co-authored with Alain on desks in several developing countries and it is a bible for many practicing economists. She has been a key person in our department, the core of our applied econometrics program that is a real strength of our dept. She is a great mentor and advisor who makes people think rigorously and do top-notch empirical work. So it was really great to see her being recognized. I also got an award (with Steve Sexton, Michelle Marra and Jorge Fernandez -Cornejo) on the economics of GMO. It is really a recognition of the work of the NRC committee, assessing the performance of GMO and my work with Steve on GMO yield effects globally that was summarized in the paper. I really feel that one of the tragedies of our time is we do not take advantage of the best tools we have (genetically enhanced varieties) to increase the productivity and safety of food production. The Choices paper documented the many gains and some of the problems of GMO, written for general audience- and it feels good to be recognized. I always like to see Berkeley alumni recognized in the meetings- it enhances our brand. This year Quirino Paris, who is a UC Davis professor joined Betty and became a fellow of the AAEA. and Sean Cash and Bruce Babcock received research awards. Julian Alston from Davis and the Giannini foundation got multiple awards- his new book with Phil Pardey that was published in our Springer series is a great academic success ( I will get 3/4% of the royalties, about one buck per book, hopefully it is also a commercial success)
The attendance in the meeting seems to be below average. This is the first year that we had a separate meeting of the Association of Environmental and Resource economists in Seattle and I noticed the absence of some good colleagues. I am a member in both AAEA and AERE and do energy and health economics as well. I have European friends and collaborators and as much as I like meetings there is a limit. Why can’t we have one summer Allied economics meetings for all these groups combined (and health economists as well) in the US. Then I go to another in Europe or Brazil (or two if the locations are attractive) and that’s it.
The best thing in the meetings is the socializing. I meet many of my students collaborators and friends. It always great to meet Gershon Feder and Richard Just and feel as close as ever. This year I missed Andy and Carole Schmitz; fun people and great friend, but I learned that Troy Schmitz is a chip of the old block, warm funny and wise. I really like the reunions and actually get to make new friends, learn essential gossips (new job openings) and start new collaborations.
There were too many sessions in the meeting – but that is the price we pay for inclusion. We had a good session on drought tolerant varieties in Africa- With Carl Pray and Tim Dalton. The bottom line is that varieties with these traits are desirable, but difficult to generate – they can perform well only during modest droughts. They may be in many locations much less valuable on average then good old GMO varieties – but donors love them and if they will be introduced, they may open the door for even better stuff. Here I go on my GMO spiel again. We had another session on managing environmental health risks based on our avian flu project in Vietnam. Tom Sproul presented something that is rare these days, a rigorous conceptual model making the case for mutual insurance among agents that may cause environmental accidents. We need more of these types of fundamental thinking. I presented a work with Jenny Ifft and Amir that argues based on empirical evidence and behavioral economics that suggest that most people have difficulty making ‘economically rational’ choices about low probability risks and that is an area for creative design of policies and institutions.
I Like to go to the special sessions in every meetings. I really treasure the Galbraith award talks of the luminaries we have had in years past, in particular of Arrow and Stiglitz. Martin Ravallion’s who gave the Galbraith talk this year, provided us with an insightful overview of the state of knowledge about poverty –the field of research he is associated with. He made it clear that poverty and inequality are related but different and that growth does not necessarily eliminates poverty- so poverty reduction requires specialized tools. The John Quiggin fellow talk on climate change was really brilliant. It was based on basic theory and common sense- and suggested that a global carbon tax of $50/ton can address much of the problems- so we do not need to quibble about the number and start with implementation. Unfortunately, implementation is tough and climate change policy will stay with us a major challenge for years to come.
After three days in Pittsburgh it was great to return home. Next year the AAEA will meet in Seattle- I will be there – probably with Leorah, and we will visit our son Shie and his wife Leigh.