DannyQuah

Making large things visible to the human eye

Category Archives: academics

“Journals Serving as Tombstones” 学术期刊只是墓碑

In the New York Times recently Paul Krugman described how academic economists grow up, and how blogging might change that:

“你通过关系网获得这个圈子的临时会员资格 (…); 这整个过程都是非正式的 —— 并且非常不民主,圈外人几乎没有参与讨论的机会。

没有哪个名校的人通过阅读学术期刊来获取新知;他们只读工作论文, 学术期刊只是墓碑而已。

所以我们现在有以博客和在线工作论文为形式的快速学术交流 —— 我认为这非常好。”

All right, I paraphrase, but not by much.

Readers behind the Great Firewall might not be able to access easily outlets like the New York Times, or indeed many other forums taken for granted in the West. So I write this, in part, to give those readers access to an NYT article by Paul Krugman. (If any English-speaking reader finds infuriating that parts of this entry are in Chinese script, well, that’s part of the meta-subtext.)

But I have another objective additionally.

Scholars worldwide are told there is only one model of publishing and disseminating ideas — that model developed in forums primarily in the West. That model, these scholars are told, is the one they must adopt if they are to progress in their career. The problem is, for a range of reasons, those scholars don’t get to see lively discussion of that way of doing research. Paul Krugman recently presented his views on this (if you are not behind the GFW, you can read it online at the New York Times; if you are, however, you might try to access the PDF file I’ve made not to undermine the publisher’s rights but for your convenience).

To pull out parts of that article, here’s Krugman on how to advance your career:

“You got provisional entree to such a group through connections — basically, being a student of someone who mattered, and being tagged as having potential. You got permanent membership by doing enough clever stuff; the informal rule was three good papers, one to get noticed, one to show that the first wasn’t a fluke, one to show that you had staying power.

And journal publication? Well, tenure committees needed that, but it was so slow relative to the pace of ongoing work that it no longer acted as an information conduit. I presented my paper on target zones at a 1988 conference; by the time it was formally published, in 1991, I had to add a section on the subsequent literature, because there were around 150 derivative papers already out there.

The whole thing was informal — and also deeply undemocratic, offering very little way for outsiders to enter the debate.

Nobody at a top school learned stuff by reading the journals; it was all working papers, with the journals serving as tombstones.

So now we have rapid-fire exchange via blogs and online working papers — and I think it’s all good.”

Buffy with Holden Ward - "Conversations with Dead People" S07E07

Buffy with Holden Ward - "Conversations with Dead People" S07E07

The working papers Krugman refers to are of course the famous NBER ones, with their prominent and distinctive yellow-jacketed covers.

One reaction to Krugman’s description might, perversely, be that the aspiring academic now realizes ever greater returns to getting into such a “top school” [heck, from here on out, it’s no-holds-barred getting that recommendation letter!] Since the inner circle must, by definition, be small and exclusive relative to the crowd, this classic “economics of superstars” scenario produces a highly unequal outcome. Many writers already disavow a societal organization that produces a top ultra-rich 1% of the income distribution. How much longer will they tolerate it for their own community of scholars? The economics of idea-production might say that skewness is an equilibrium outcome; it does not say that that outcome is optimal.

The other reaction, perhaps the reasonable one, is to be aware that the more level playing field that is now possible, with the new tools for blogging and social networking, gives wider scope and opportunity for idea-dissemination and personal advancement, so that an academic can now focus just on developing great ideas, not any more try to game the system or network needlessly.

But how does the new generation get validation when the old people, apart from those like Krugman, don’t “get” the new tools? That inner group with the yellow jackets isn’t going to just roll over without a fight, even if doing so might ultimately be good for the profession.

The LSE Big Questions Lecture 2011: Organized Common Sense

In June 2011, I was lucky enough to deliver the inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture. I chose to lecture on whether the East was taking over the world. I felt these changes in the world matter to everyone, and they are developments with important economic ideas surrounding them. The LSE Big Questions Lecture is targeted at 14 year-old school children in a number of London’s schools — hundreds showed up on the day. The lecture itself was televised for subsequent broadcast. The runup to this lecture involved months working with a production team at LSE: these were months of planning and rehearsing, writing and rewriting, arguing and disagreeing — on analytical content and ideas, on what 14 year-olds might find useful and understandable and memorable, on the best ways to communicate different ideas in economics and facts about the world.

Why did we do this?

As an academic economist, I study growth and distribution. I write about the shifting global economy and the rise of the East. I try to make large things visible to the human eye. I want to be considered a valuable REF contributor to my department and to the LSE.

But I also believe that these are times where economic literacy matters hugely, not least in societies that continue to hold to the ideals of liberal democracies. And there are intriguing large-scale parallels between important events now and those some time ago in history.

In 1825 Michael Faraday — perhaps the world’s greatest ever experimental scientist — initiated (but did not himself give) the first of the Royal Institution of Great Britain’s Christmas Lectures. Faraday went on to deliver 19 series altogether of these annual Lectures, his last in 1860, presenting and explaining to the British public ongoing discoveries in chemistry and electricity and magnetism.

1855 Michael Faraday - Royal Institution Christmas Lecture

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have continued to the present, interrupted only by World War 2. They are delivered to a general audience, notably including young people, with the aim to inform and entertain. From their beginning, these lectures proved highly popular despite the limited nature to early 19th century organised education. Since 1966 the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been televised. For many British households, the Christmas Lectures constitute a highlight of annual holiday family viewing. The energy and the ingenuity that go into the lectures are impressive, not least when, say, someone like Marcus du Sautoy, in his 2006 lectures, explains abstract number theory to a teenage audience.

These Royal Institution Christmas lectures provide the strongest counter-example I know to the conceit that research ideas are too difficult to explain to and too abstruse to excite the general public. Most of us just don’t work hard enough at it. So getting to deliver something the LSE Big Questions Lecture would be a challenge. But there was more.

In 1825, London had just become the world’s leading city by overtaking Beijing — vividly demonstrating the steady ongoing shift then of the world’s economic centre east to west. That year, the first modern economic crisis in history occurred — modern in the sense of not having been caused by a war. The stock market crash of 1825 took out in England alone six London banks and sixty country banks, with the badly-overextended Bank of England having to be rescued by an injection of gold from France. For students of central banking, this event became enshrined afterwards in Walter Bagehot’s Lombard Street principles for the lender-of-last-resort role in central banking.

In 1825, Faraday’s scientific discoveries were not centre-stage for the Industrial Revolution swirling about him at the time. That first Industrial Revolution — perhaps the most important event in the history of humanity — was driven by iron-making, mechanisation, and steam power, more than by electrification and chemical processing. But chemistry and electricity and magnetism — where Faraday’s contributions were manifold and central — pointed to the then-future. These would go on to provide the more enduring engine of growth for modern economic progress, not least down to what today still powers all digital technologies, significant among them cellphones and the Internet.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures matter in British science for providing the public knowledge into the most important exciting intellectual developments of the time. They gave the British public insight into what was new. Historians who study why a 14th-century Chinese Industrial Revolution did not occur, despite China’s more advanced science centuries prior to that in 1780 Britain, point to how science in England had always immediately connected to commercial application and public interest. This is exactly the same kind of connection that the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures make. By contrast, in China, science and technology were tightly controlled by a scholarly elite, who saw no reason to disseminate their discoveries. During the 18th-century Industrial Revolution, James Watt and Matthew Boulton had announced the English public “steam-mad”, whereas in Sung Dynasty China, time itself was considered the sole property of the Emperor.

Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture

The Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture begins

I am under no mad illusion that what I do as an academic is even remotely comparable to the achievements by these giants of scientific and technical progress from 1825. But I don’t think I’m half-bad as a lecturer. I don’t shuffle my lecture notes and lose my place in them [I don't use lecture notes]. I don’t mumble into my beard so that the audience has no idea what I just said [I'm ethnic Chinese and we don't grow beards easily]. I don’t put up Powerpoint slides crammed full with text and then just read them out word-for-word [almost all my slides are just colourful pictures].

I believe, as first told to me by my PhD advisor, economics is just “organized common sense”. I’m passionate about explaining ideas in economic policy to any audience that might remotely be able to influence our national and global conversations on improving the state of the world.

So, when asked, I gave the LSE Big Questions Lecture a go.

Is UK academic social science following a work model others are already discarding?

Mark Thoma‘s thoughtful article “New Forms of Communication and the Public Mission of Economics: Overcoming the Great Disconnect” (04 November 2011) describes the factors that, through the 1980s and after, led to academic economics disengaging from its long-standing public mission: Addressing the questions important to society.

Once it started to withdraw, academic economics became ever more self-contained and self-affirming. Along that path these developments encountered no reality check or market test. The profession grew to have no way to ask how the questions it addressed might matter to anyone, to anyone that is beyond those inside the profession itself involved in posing and answering those questions. Instead, the profession developed a disdain for those outside it – government economists, business economists, journalists, the general public – who were concerned with matters it considered mundane. Academic economics saw a choice between only two extremes: one, that of super-streamlined professionalism and the other, that of ambulance-chasing opportunism, and it convinced all the PhD students it could find there was only one way to go. The system faced no countervailing pressure to change.

Economics no longer had a public mission; it had turned its back on the rest of society. Thoma’s earlier op-ed from 26 July 2011 pointed out:

“How much confidence would you have in the medical profession if the teaching faculty in medical schools had very little experience actually treating patients, and very little connection to – even a lack of respect for – the practitioners in the field? Would your confidence be improved if medical research had little to do with the questions that are important to the doctors trying to serve patients?

Fortunately, however, this disengagement has begun to turn around, not least since the global economic crisis following 2008 but also, a little before then, through academic economists – top-flight respected researchers – resuming communicating again directly with the public. In Thoma’s analysis, it is blogging – with all the attendant openness, immediacy, and direct connection with the readership (facilitated by a supporting information and communications technology) – that has brought economics back to its public mission of understanding, explaining, and convincing on questions that matter. This does not replace research. But it breathes life back into the latter and suggests why certain kinds of research have genuine validity.

The inroads from there, moreover, have allowed economists again to have the confidence to engage openly with journalists, with policy-makers, and with a suspicious public nonetheless eager to learn.  This not only improves research but raises economic and financial literacy.  We cannot pretend to value the ideals of liberal democracy if we we don’t think it important that the general public understands better what happens around them.

Thoma’s examples are almost entirely US, and that is appropriate. That is where change has been greatest.

But this makes me wonder if, in the UK in our own headlong RAE/REF-directed rush to academic excellence, we are now following the path that, in Thoma’s analysis, is already old and tired – i.e., from the pre-blogging era. What passes for hiring/firing discussion in many economics departments is rumour mixed with currency: a researcher with four publications in the top 4* journals is worth, in UK government REF-derived funds, £100,000 a year. So hiring someone in that category is, upon amortization, a half-million pound proposition. Some departments might even mortgage an expensive hire like that today, discounting against REF future income prospects. (Does anyone else think this resembles a subprime mortgage deal?) Impact studies might count – so, e.g., if some social scientists developed a new pharmaceutical assembly line – that might raise your REF income.

Engagement with the public? “Sorry, that’s not in the REF. The 4* Americans don’t do that, you see…”

Guest Post – The Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture – by Emily May

(The original host service for this post is no longer available, but its author Emily May kindly agreed that her writeup might appear on this blog.)
5 July 2011
Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture

The Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture begins

LSE Global Governance co-director Professor Danny Quah gave a special Big Questions lecture to Year 9 students on how the world’s economy is shifting eastwards, with countries such as India and China becoming wealthier and more powerful than ever before.

With Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-style voting clickers, tug of war, jumbo pound coins and in-jokes about video games, this was never going to be your usual LSE lecture. Following a lively warm-up and introductions from a rather bashful film crew, Professor Quah took us on a whirlwind tour of the global economy – how trade works, the benefits of economic development for a country, and how economics provides a useful way to interpret the world.

Part of the audience at the Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture

“Did he actually just say ‘Spartans respawning - the mathematics are determinate’?”

Enlisting the help of some brave youngsters plucked from the audience, Professor Quah engagingly demonstrated how the East’s economic power is accelerating and what this means for the West. ‘The Chinese economy is growing at a rate of 10 per cent every year,’ he said, ‘which means it’s doubling in size every seven years. At this rate, our volunteer here would be 10ft tall by the time he enrols at LSE.’

We witnessed, via a striking world map on the big screen (plus a game of tug of war, just for good measure), how the emergence of the East in the last 30 years has pulled the world’s economic centre of gravity nearly 5000km from its 1980 mid-Atlantic location towards India and China.

But what does that mean for us? Well, we get an awful lot of ‘cheap stuff’. We watched a time-lapse video of a day in the life of a teenager called Charlie, who sped between his X-box (£220), PC (£330), and kicking his football (£10). All of these products were made in China. Then we learned just how much more expensive they would cost if they had been made in the UK: a whopping £3,200 for a PC, £1,760 for an Xbox, and £80 for a football.

So, the East might be making a lot more ‘cheap stuff’ than the UK, but we are getting pretty good at using innovation expertise and global collaboration to create our own products. To prove this point, award-winning entrepreneur Michael George took to the stage to describe how his new product – ‘the first ecological designer light bulb’ – was designed by his company in the UK but manufactured in China with US technology.

Despite the East’s rapid growth, its vast population – there are 50 people in East Asia for each person in the UK – means it has some catching up to do in respect of personal prosperity, as the average individual income remains at the same level as Namibia and Azerbaijan, with many people living on just 70p a day. Nevertheless, Professor Quah concluded that asking  ‘East beats West?’ is the wrong question, as the rise of the East has led to ‘the world being immeasurably better off. We need economics to help improve the lot of humanity. That is what economics is about.’

Read Professor Quah’s article ‘The Great Shift East‘.

Economics is a martial art

A scream for help from the alleyway; what do you do? Move in cautiously but quickly? Or hold back because you worry that the whole thing might get messy?

Do you fret that you haven’t yet published the perfect model of these kinds of social dynamics and that until you do, you might do more harm than good? Or that you won’t have the credibility? Credibility for what, for standing up to street hoodlums?

Do you let someone else look into this? Who, people not as well-trained and not as physically fit as you? People without your punching and kicking abilities and your instincts honed from years of practice in a safe training environment?

Do you stand on the sidelines and criticize those trying to help for not dispatching the hoodlums faster?

What if you realize the scream is your mom or your kids or anyone else who looks to you to protect them? What do you do?

They’re not asking for perfect certainty and total rigor. They just want to be safe again. You can’t tell them this isn’t really what you were trained for, that you are much more a kicker whereas these hoodlums will likely be better dealt with by grappling or boxing. You are there, you are physically fit, you have a reaction time faster than those of others around you. That’s all they expect of you. That’s all that should matter.


So too in economics.

You don’t have to be the world’s top martial artist street fighter. Or the world’s deepest thinker on economic policy. You don’t have to expect to come out of every street situation or every economic policy encounter unscathed, whether physically or in reputation.

You just have to do a bit of good in the world. And the more of you there are, the more the bad guys lose.

(Photo credit: Cung LE is a Vietnamese-American kickboxer and mixed martial artist. Following the fall of Vietnam, he came to the US where bullying forced him to learn to fight. In March 2008 he became Strikeforce Middleweight champion by TKO when a sequence of powerful kicks ended up breaking his opponent’s right arm.)

Oh no! Which camera?!


At the Malaysia Gala dinner Tuesday evening (05 June 2007, here in London) Jimmy Choo won yet another richly-deserved award for fashion design.

I was lucky enough to have our photograph taken together. But, err, whose camera did that go into?! Not mine. There were an awful lot of flashing lights and digital cameras and cellphones and reporters out. Hmmm. A picture lost forever, unless it magically shows up in one of those photo albums visitors get to browse at Jimmy Choo Couture.

(Or as the lovely Francesca told me about shoes, “Men. You just don’t get it, do you?”)

New Year’s Day 2007 I’d run into Jimmy and his wonderful family at Oriental City. We worried over the state of parts of the national press and their understanding of intellectual property rights. Sherwin Rosen’s Economics of Superstars figured too, for both what it got right and what it got wrong (no deep secret: Rosen thought what he called shoemakers would never be superstars. So just keep thinking “Jimmy Choo” as you work through the equations in the paper, and remember Sex and the City didn’t start broadcasting until 1998. Or just read again what Francesca said).

When this OC closes, all that wonderful serendipity will go. If you’re reading this not too late in the millennium, sign the petition.


On an earlier occasion (January 2007, at LSE) I fortunately managed to locate the camera where this photograph went. (Thanks Dennis!) We discussed the role of human capital in the economic development of small, open fast-growing economies.

Learn economics. Get the terminology right. Mingle with interesting people. A friend of mine still believes that her saying “I’m an economist” sounds much, much cooler than saying “Bond. The name is Bond.”

Reading and writing


Technical writing brings a sense of personal accomplishment. It puts food on the table. It is part of my official work. It is what I need to do every day. And, I hope, it has some impact on what happens around me, whether in advancing science or in improving how society works. No, really, I’m not proud; I can live with either. Yet other work—not completely random of course but related to what I do (e.g., in Newsweek [December 2005] or on BBC Panorama [November 2004]) although not in my official job description—bring something else. People you didn’t think would be interested in what you say end up touched somehow. People all over the world reach out to you. They want to understand too. They figure you’ve shed some light on their concerns and their worries. They tell you what it means to them, what you’ve said.

Maybe exactly how much we academics get paid in our official jobs just isn’t that important, when we have been gifted with such opportunity and when -rightly or wrongly- so many people out there feel what we do matters to them. Then again, however, Steven Spielberg has all this too, and gets paid a lot more than academics do. But, of course, he has to do that 24/7, and can’t retreat into technical writing.

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