Do the work – thoughts on the American Economic Association meetings

It’s the look. You’re walking through the crowds at the American Economic Association meetings.  When you pass someone they look at your bellybutton. Huh?  Oh, right: That’s where your official nametag hangs on your official lanyard, and the person you went by is checking to see if you are someone. You catch the disappointment in their eyes when they read your tag.

I want to stop and tell them, “Sorry, I’m not anyone whose paper you’ve cited or whose book you’ve read. You’ve probably used or read a paper or book that used my work. And I’ve probably seen or used your work.  Your stuff is good and I hope you keep at it.  And isn’t that what this is all about, the work?”

But I don’t do this and neither do they. We have places to go, people to see, stuff to do. It makes me sad, since the entire point of having a meeting is to interact with one another face-to-face and not through the pages of an academic paper, a blog post, or a tweet.

It used to be that the job market was the place to catch the forlorn, the confused, the desperate.  The job market is held in a huge ballroom filled with men and women who rarely wear suits wandering from table to table, selling themselves.  Now there’s another spot that has the same feel: the poster area.

Row upon row of academic posters displaying the results of years of work.  I look them over and see all kinds of topics that policymakers should be reading: work effects of the Affordable Care Act, connections between CEO pay and firm performance, interactions between energy efficiency standards and consumer durable purchases.  These are all things that we, as policy wonks, should care about, but they are not on the agenda for formal sessions at the meetings. They are consigned to the poster area, where people wander around, looking at the displays, and researchers wait to talk with passersby. I talk with some of them, ask questions, compliment their work.

I can’t help but wonder what they are thinking.  Will it get published? Will anyone notice? Does it matter?

Yes, it does, it is the stuff of which real academic progress is made.  If I were an AEA officer, I’d put the poster area at the center of the convention, in a place where everyone walks through so that every attendee can see what we’re all up to.

We’re trying to understand the world, bit by bit, so don’t worry about the name on the name tag. Focus on the work.