Sunday, October 24, 2010

My experience in Boston and at the NBER conference

...was incredible. This was the sort of event that made me realize I've made more or less the right career/life choices.

I got into Boston on Thursday and spent most of the morning finishing off my slides in a coffee shop. From there I walked down Boston Common and then down Boylston Street and up Washington Street with the eventual goal of Brattle Book Shop, which was established in 1825. The book shop has an expansive outdoor section of lower priced books and a great collection inside as well. I decided to limit myself to late 19th and early 20th century history and economics to beef up that section of my library and not go crazy with purchases. I ended up getting a first edition of Norman Pollack's The Populist Response to Industrial America and a copy of Coin's Financial School, edited by Richard Hofstadter and including an essay in the front by Hofstadter on "Coin's Financial School and the Mind of 'Coin' Harvey". Both of these books will be useful for a project I'm doing this fall, writing five entries for an Encyclopedia of American Populism, which I got hooked up with through the H-Net announcements board this summer. This was after submitting my 1920-21 depression paper, when I felt the need to move on to something else and build my knowledge and credentials with turn of the century history. I'm writing relatively short entries for "the quantity theory of money", "the National Monetary Commission", "the International Monetary Conference", "Coin's Financial School", and "technological unemployment". The Hofstadter edition of Coin's Financial School is obviously for that entry, and Pollack's book is going to be great help in my entry on technological unemployment (which was not initially intended for the volume, but I convinced the editors to add).

Moving on from the populism books, I also got a first edition of William Beveridge's Full Employment in a Free Society. There was an interesting note at the front of the book (this was published in 1945): "A Wartime Book: This complete edition is produced in full compliance with the government's regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials". Whatever they did to comply in the production of the book, it's in great condition. William Beveridge is of course famous for the Beveridge Report and the Beveridge Curve, and this book that I got is a great example of an early exposition of Keynesianism. Finally, I got Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce 1921-1928: Studies in the New Era of Thought and Practice. It's a collection of conference papers - one covers the 1920-21 depression itself, while others cover other episodes in his time as secretary.

OK, now that I've taken two full paragraphs talking about my books it's probably time to move on. After the bookshop I headed north, intending to look at Paul Revere's house, the Old North Church, and Copp's Hill Burying Ground (a setting, not to mention inspiration for a lot of Lovecraft stories). I didn't get that far because it started to rain. I ducked into a nearby burying ground, though - at King's Chapel just above Boston Common. This is Boston's oldest, and it was mentioned by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter (and allegedly an adulteress's grave was a source of inspiration for him). I saw the grave of John Winthrop, the first governor, and William Dawes Jr., who helped alert residents of Lexington and Concord that the British were coming. There were many large, old trees in this cemetery which, with my umbrella, kept my laptop, clothes, new books, and books my mother-in-law sent with me to take to my wife's uncle dry. I was pretty weighed down and could have run to some other store, but it was a nice scene - a cemetery quickly emptied of tourists when the rain began, with brooding storm clouds and crisp autumn air. I stayed under the tree until the rain stopped, and then went on to my hotel.

That afternoon I blogged on the Murphy-Krugman debate (I'm still unenthused), polished my slides a little more, and then headed out to Harvard Square to have dinner with the conferees at The Sandrines, a nice French bistro near Harvard. This was a great experience - I met Richard Freeman, a very gregarious and funny guy, as well as all the authors of the other chapters. The one guy I knew - my co-author - was late, so I was forced to get to know some people, including Sue Helper at Case Western Reserve University, Cathy Weinberger at UC Santa Barbara, and Erling Barth at the University of Oslo. Talking with all of them before and during dinner really made me reconsider the prospect of an academic career - I've leaned more towards the private sector and the government for many years now. But these guys were really able to spend a lot of time delving into their research and taking the time to do the job right and investigate a problem until it was solved. At the Urban Institute we're often under a lot of tough time constraints, and sometimes we don't get to into the nitty-gritty of the research in the way that I heard these guys talking about. There are liabilities to the academic approach as well, of course, but I think it would nice to let research unfold at its own pace.

The conference itself went well. I ended up presenting a lot of our work. The atmosphere was informal and collegial, with lots of discussion and suggestions. This wasn't a normal conference environment where the goal was to pick apart the presenter's case. We had an interest in being constructive, as well as sharing ideas because ultimately we're all going into a single volume and we want there to be some coherence between the chapters. So I thought our presentation went well, it was well received, and I was treated as an equal by everyone else (all professors). They would pull me aside in the hall during coffee breaks to talk more about it, etc. A great experience all around.

We went to the Harvard Business School for a lunch seminar. Three papers were presented on non-compete agreements in high-tech firms. Essentially many firms have workers agree that if/when they leave the firm they won't work in the same industry for a year or two afterwards. Some states - most notably California - have made such agreements illegal as a restraint of trade. The effect has been a steady brain drain of innovative workers from states that allow non-competes (the vast majority of states) to places like California.

I met up with Kate's uncle, who works at Harvard Law School, and went back to his place in Brookline Friday night. I probably got more sleep there than I have all week, and headed off in the morning back to Washington. A great trip over all. My opinion of NBER and Harvard has risen considerably, as has my disposition towards academic economics. Now the task will be to find time this fall to finish off this chapter for the May conference. It's going to be very busy at work. We shall see!

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