I thought Rochester was a fascinating city. It is cut in half by the Erie Canal, an early c19th waterway that linked the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, therebye facilitating the flow of commerce that would build New York. The repeal of the Corn Laws was a factor in the boom of trading, and Rochester flourished.
The headquarters of Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Xerox (and later Wegman's) provided the jobs, but as is so often the case, prosperity is temporary. The downtown area feels like Liverpool's business district - quiet, decaying, yet sporodic buildings of greatness that echo a sense of historic wealth.
This was the first academic conference that I've participated in, and the whole experience was a treat. It was hectic, productive, and socially rewarding.
The quality of presentations were mixed, and although they all focused on fascinating and important issues (the program is here), I was often left frustrated by the methodology and techniques being used. Two recurring issues stand out:
- The Absense of Theory
The typical presentation would be a large data set - portrayed with a variety of colour-coded bar charts - and perhaps a few regressions to tease out important variables. Such studies can suffer in various ways. Firstly, the type of data can be innapropriate. If you want to study an informal sector, national aggregates like GDP are virtually redundant. On the other hand, small case studies and interviews can only explain particular episodes of a phenomena. Although methods to resolve this problem exist, they weren't in evident. But the only way that either type of data can be interpreted is with a theory, and such theories were largely lacking. I learnt a great deal about various correlations, but felt no attention was given to causation.
An exception to this was the keynote lecture, given by Timur Kuran. He attempted to trace the lack of development in Middle Eastern countries to certain Islamic ideas that become embedded in society and inhibit the formation of modern firms. Some attendeed that I spoke to were critical of the lack of data, but his thesis did not rest on significance testing. If you are discussing the evolution of institutions, a snapshot of certain variables at time A and time B will not provide you with the process by which we move from A-->B.
That is not to say that all data is irrelevent, or that empirical work is invalid. But it should be the tools with which theory is tested for it's applicability, and not the object of study in itself
- The Lack of Public Choice
On several occasions I heard a talk in which an assumption was made that a certain policy automatically led to the intended consequence. A hypothetical example would be that a minimum wage was introduced, and therefore there'd be an increase in the incomes of poor people.... err no.
As an Austrian, I see both of these weaknesses as being proft opportunities. There has been much great work on the Economics of Religion, and the more that economists contribute, the better it will become. The ASREC conference was a rich community of approachable Professors, and friendly, inquisitive students. I hope to become an active player in ongoing conversations.
I have put some photos from the conference in a gallery. Feel free to copy, edit, or ask to be removed.