Inspired by the new Becker/Posner blog, in which Becker and Posner comment on a common topic each week, and then on each other's postings, Dr. Boks has decided to try out a few posts in a similar format. This week's topic is the ASSA job market in Philadelphia last weekend. Specifically, Babcock and Boks will be commenting on the burning question: "Are economists smart enough to organize their own conference--or are they too clueless to organize a potato-sack race at a kindergartener's birthday party, let alone an annual conference and job market?"
Babcock: The evidence is clear. Economists can't organize anything. Consider the main interviewing hotel (which will remain nameless but which was nothing like an "embassy" and not at all "sweet"). There was no lobby to speak of, no chairs to sit in while waiting, no place to get coffee or a glass of water, the bathrooms were restricted to hotel guests and were difficult for interviewees to access, and the elevators were as small as coffins and as slow as sea slugs. On the main interviewing days, Friday and Saturday, the waiting area was congested and the wait for elevators was as long as 20 minutes. Interviewees clogged the stairwells climbing as many as 24 floors--on foot--to get to their interviews.
Some congestion was to be expected, of course. The point is not that congestion should have been eliminated but that of all the hotels in downtown Philadelphia area, this one was worst suited to be the main interview hotel, in almost every dimension, on almost every imaginable scale.
There are 2 main possibilities. 1) Nobody bothered to investigate the hotel beforehand. 2) The hotel was chosen based on optimization criteria but some kind of mistake was made. Alternative 2, I believe, is the more interesting possibility. It is altogether possible that some economist decided on the criteria and contrived a continuous function to maximize. He then took the first derivative to find the maximum but neglected to check the second order conditions. Thus, instead of maximizing the suitability function he minimized it. This would explain, elegantly I think, how job interviews happened to take place at the worst possible venue. I would argue that both options strongly support the notion that economists are not competent to organize a potato-sack race.
Boks: While I appreciate the elegance of Babcock's "botched second order condition" hypotheisis, I respectfully disagree. There are at least 3 alternative explanations that are more plausible by far.
1) The welfare and convenience of job market applicants simply did not enter significantly into the planners' value function. The search costs associated with finding an appropriate venue vastly outweighed any microscopic benefit that might accrue to the member economists of the AEA from assisting job market applicants. In short, job applicants don't matter. Why should they? It is the view of many, myself included, that prior to being published in the AER and/or earning tenure, an economist is embryonic and not yet a human being in any meaningful sense of the word.
2) Alternatively, it may be the case that planners really do care about the welfare of all those little economist embryos applying for jobs, and that they exhibited a paternalistic zeal to help them. Most grad students in economics, clearly, are nerdlike and nebbishy. Climbing up and down stairs may have been the only physical exercise they had in weeks. Given a strong enough paternalistic instinct on the part of planners, the marginal benefit to the job applicants' health that derived from this enforced regime of "step aerobics" might well have justified the choice of hotels.
3) Finally, any applicant who bothers to sprint 24 floors on foot must really want the job. Middle and lower tier universities often worry that interviewees are not seriously interested. Applicants may accept interviews just for the practice, or as a safety net. The universities wish to gauge the seriousness of the applicant. The goal then is to maximize the chaos and inconvenience involved in the interview process, and then to observe who shows up on time in spite of it all. If maximizing chaos was the goal, the organizers were brilliant, succeeding beyond their wildest expectations.
I do not know which of these explanations is correct. But given that I offer 3 alternatives and Babcock offers only 2, and if we assume all 5 alternatives are equally likely (as a theorist, I am accustomed to assuming anything I choose) then it is more likely that economists are prodigiously talented organizers than they are incompetent Bozos.
Babcock's Rebuttal: Oh, come on.
Boks' Rebuttal: Maybe I can submit this to a journal.
Babcock's Rebuttal to Boks' Rebuttal: It's absurd and unrealistic.
Boks' Rebuttal to Babcock's Rebuttal: Then I can definitely get it published.