How was the process of expanding from academic research into more policy-oriented work?
I initially brought an academic focus and rigor to the Soviet grain question, but also quickly realised that policymakers had little interest in your estimating equations or structure of your model. They needed to connect your results to the stories they heard and/or saw going on around them. So, I needed to find ways to bring the rigor to the analysis but present the findings in a way that seemed relevant to the policymaker. One clue was, and this was before smart devices, if the policymaker started to look at what was next on their agenda you had lost them and they had already moved on. You needed to connect with them within the first few minutes of the briefing and engage them for maybe 10 or 15 minutes and ideally into a productive question-and-answer session which signalled they were “hooked”. I also discovered that much of what I did that was of interest to policymakers was not of that much interest to academics in regular economics – my background – compared to those academics from an agricultural economics background. I had to be selective about which topics I pursued for policy versus academic audiences. While I have had some success with academic publications, my most satisfying work is helping policymakers make better informed decisions with good data and analysis. I like to say the job of an independent and objective policy researcher is to help policymakers be more aware of the potential opportunity costs of their decisions. Rarely does the analysis drive a policy decision. At best it may influence the views of policymakers in a way that allows them to better understand the impacts of their decision. At worst… it just annoys them that you have given them inconvenient information that goes against what they want to achieve.
How have your teaching experience and style been informed by your research and policy work?
My research has often been on relatively big issues of real-world significance. When presenting my policy work, I usually cannot rely on jargon or abstract models. I have to find the intuition and place it in the context of the policymakers’ world. Academic abstraction and/or complexity, which help very much discipline our thinking, data work, and empirical estimates, have usually been irrelevant to policymakers. Thus, my teaching tends to emphasise what caused the author to deal with this question, what is the intuition driving the theory or empirics, and to identify the model mechanism that captures that intuition. Then I try to put that into the broader context of other forces that could also be driving similar outcomes.
What have you read lately that has marked your research field and that you would highly recommend?
Our own Richard Baldwin’s The Globotics Upheaval, Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything and The Entrepreneurial State, and Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves and Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence. I rarely read work for pleasure and rarely read for work at night – I get plenty of that during the day! I am a huge fan of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels. I’ve been working my way slowly through them since 2012, but with the events of 2016, Kerr’s setting of the novels largely in Germany with the rise of the National Socialist Party and the aftermath of WWII felt so relevant to the present.
Do you have any special memory from your PhD years that you would like to share?
I went to graduate school with very naïve expectations, and probably not well prepared for what I was about to encounter. My special memory is surviving the first year and figuring out how to thrive. I also choose a path, Soviet Economic and Comparative Systems, that was unique and frowned upon. But I guess I did it my way.
What advice would you give to students in terms of how to approach research?
Try to work on topics that really interest you, not me or other professors. Because if you do the research well it is likely to be frustrating and challenging and you will need to find motivation to keep going. If you get too caught up in demonstrating your technical capabilities (yes that is necessary) and forget what you were trying to learn it will be far more a burden than an intellectual adventure.
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Interview by Guilherme Suedekum, PhD Candidate in International Economics.
Banner image: USSR Post / Public domain.