This was written by Trevor Tombe of the University of Calgary.
In a recent Financial Post opinion piece by Phillip Cross (entitled “Discounting Business Knowledge” HERE), he finds the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Economics Association guilty of bias. Allow me to quote him at length:
Analysing the 64-page CEA agenda shows a not very surprising bias to where the CEA thinks knowledge about economics resides in our society. Of the 600 odd papers being presented, 90 per cent are from university professors, while two-thirds of the remainder come from government organizations (mostly central banks). Only 3 per cent of papers come from outside university and the public sector…
From these observations he concludes that “according to the CEA, there is essentially no knowledge in the business sector worth tapping.” Unfortunately for Mr. Cross, many of these observations are either misleading or sometimes simply false. The actual data tell a very different story. (Special thanks to Paula Emery and especially Werner Antweiler for providing the relevant statistics.)
Mr. Cross is correct that the bulk of presentations at the CEA are by individuals affiliated with Universities, but he forgets that graduate students make up a substantial share of those. Indeed, of the 1135 registered participants, over one quarter of CEA participants are graduate students. Rather than the 90 per cent figure cited by Mr. Cross, Professors of all ranks (full, associate, assistant, retired, visiting, emeritus, etc.) are less than half of the total. Of course, many participants do not report their academic rank in this way, which is why the “other” category is nearly one quarter of the total, so these data are only broadly informative.
What about our supposed focus on irrelevant topics? He supposes “practical people searching for solutions to real problems” are not likely to be found at the CEA. On the contrary, a wide variety of important fields of research are represented at the CEA. This is readily confirmed by the wide variety of primary fields listed by authors of presented papers (keeping in mind that many of us have expertise in many areas, and these do not necessarily reflect the actual paper topics presented). The following table lists the top 20 primary fields out of all submissions, in descending order.
This data supports what Chris Ragan recently pointed out in a Globe and Mail piece, the CEA features “discussions of almost any economic issue you could imagine”. (Read the full article HERE, though it is behind a pay wall.)
But let’s return to the central issue of Mr. Cross’s piece: the lack of presentations by business sector economists. Is this evidence of bias on the part of the CEA or some reflection of where “we” think economic knowledge in society resides? Perhaps instead it is only that few economists from the business sector apply to participate in the first place. Below, I plot the share of applications received by the CEA this year by affiliation. Again, the facts do not support Mr. Cross’ interpretation.
The business community accounts for less than 1% of applications. Specifically, only 9 applications from economists in the business community were received. Of those, only one (!) was rejected. Hardly evidence of a cabal of CEA gatekeepers preventing economists in the business community from participating. Overall, the decision rates across affiliation categories are fairly similar, at roughly 70% of applications accepted.
It is incorrect to claim that the CEA somehow neglects the insights of economists in the business community. It turns out they simply do not apply. When they do, their acceptance rate is comparable to all other types of economists. If the lack of business economist participation is concerning to you, the solution is clear: organize a CEA session, get them to apply. (In another response to the Phillip Cross piece, Stephen Tapp makes this same broad point, among others. Read it HERE.)
What might explain the lack of interest in applying to the CEAs? Perhaps it has something to do with business economists having their own, separate, professional association – The Canadian Association of Business Economists – who have their own events.
Most bewildering of all of Mr. Cross’s claims is the attack on some of the most accomplished economists among us. The Canada Research Chairs, he notes, do not dominate the CEA State-of-the-Art Lectures. From this, we must conclude (of course) that they actually do not possess state of the art knowledge and therefore the entire CRC program provides little return on investment. Then again, even a quick glance of the CVs of any of Canada’s CRC chairs reveals a steady flow of publications in the world’s best economics journals, many highly insightful policy pieces, direct consulting with governments, and a regular schedule of travel to disseminate their accumulated knowledge all over the world.
But, since five of the six State-of-the-Art lectures were by U.S. economists, we apparently have a problem. It’s as though allowing participation by non-Canadian economists is concerning. It turns out that many economists from all over the world actually want to travel to Canada to network, share ideas, collaborate, and learn. Indeed, one-third of all applications to the CEAs are from non-Canadian economists (see below).
And many of those non-Canadian economists that apply are accepted, as revealed in the decision rates by country displayed below.
The gains from trade are very real, and this is as true of ideas as it is of goods and services. We should see such international participation at the CEAs as unambiguously good.
Sadly, many more non-sensical observations abound in Mr. Cross’s piece. For example, separating economics in universities and government from the business sector apparently causes a “lack of appreciation of risk-taking” and a presumption that “government is the locus of growth.” The heated rhetoric in his piece is supported by no evidence beyond a cursory glance at the conference program. Public commentators have a responsibility not to mislead, even in opinion pieces. Claims should be supported by evidence or not made at all.
This was written by Trevor Tombe of the University of Calgary.