Thursday, August 15, 2019

Member Blog: David Zilberman

Presidents come and go: The AAEA is resilient and thriving.
David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | August 13, 2019

After three failed campaigns, I was elected and served as president of the AAEA from July 2018 to July 2019. I expected the job to be about organizing meetings, fund raising, and writing letters to the membership, but I encountered a much more significant challenge. The US president’s budget proposed to cut 40% of the Economic Research Service’s (ERS) budget, which was followed by the administration suggesting that the ERS move out of Washington. We’ve now learned ERS’s proposed future location is Kansas City. ERS Economists are valuable members of our association. I realized that for the ERS employees, such a relocation would present a significant hardship to them and their families. Many of these experienced and dedicated public servants are not likely to move, which would weaken the capacity of the agency. I am concerned that the current administration may see some of ERS’s independent findings as inconvenient and, without prodding, would not be committed to restoring its research capacity. ERS provides essential information about domestic and global agricultural markets, food security and nutrition, rural livelihoods, estimates of costs of alternative policies, and climate risk. This information is crucial for smart decision-making by both the public and private sectors. In the grand scheme of things, the ERS is a small agency and the information it provides consistently generates outsized benefits. While a move from Washington may be justified as a cost-saving activity, it has to be done carefully to keep the agency productive. For this reason, the AAEA joined with other groups to challenge the move. It now seems likely that ERS is moving to Kansas City, so we have redirected our effort to ensuring ERS has the resources and capacity it needs to serve the nation effectively. The ERS situation made me appreciate the fact that professional and academic organizations need to be politically active for the sake of their members and society at large. Indeed, the AAEA has now committed itself to lobby and better inform policymakers and the public about the value of economic research generally and agricultural research in particular.

Mentoring is another set of activities that aims to empower our members. We have two mentoring workshops for young and mid-career professionals. In one, we try to impart tacit knowledge about writing publishable research and proposals, planning one’s career, and balancing work and life. In the other, the emphasis is on helping young professionals improve the relevance, timeliness, and impact of their research. The most important outcome may be the networking and the sense of community that intergenerational exchange provides. Of course, established members of our profession don’t have all the answers, and the world is ever changing. Still, young members can benefit from learning from our successes as well as our mistakes.

Probably the most enjoyable aspect of being president is the selection of keynote speakers for our annual meeting. My aim is to select individuals who are excellent speakers, outstanding scholars, and bring different perspectives on issues of concern to our members. Pam Ronald, a world-class biologist who developed flood-tolerant rice varieties, made some of the complexities of transgenic varieties and gene-editing quite accessible to us, revealing why she may be the leading public educator about agricultural biotechnology. One field where I feel Applied Economics Departments have underinvested is economic history, and a single talk by Alan Olmstead proved this point. Many of us believe that computers and the Internet are the greatest inventions in human history, but Olmstead challenged us to step back and consider penicillin and synthetic fertilizer. He demonstrated that some of our key assumptions may not always hold. Olmstead brought evidence that mechanization mostly increased yields, while it was new varieties that saved labor. He also argued that there had been much value to “Big Government” activities that eliminated animal diseases, even overcoming objections from local communities. His current research on slavery highlights how much pain it inflicted for relatively limited economic gains.

We also had two other excellent plenary talks. David Card gave an informative and brilliant exposition of two alternative methods of estimation, the model-based approach, and data-based approach. These strategies are complementary and expand the capacity of economic research in the era of big data. Keith Coble, our incoming president, gave an inspirational address emphasizing that the knowledge we generate is a public good supported in no small part by taxpayers. To meet our mission, we need to combine relevance and elegance in our investigations. The plenary talks are the appetizers and dessert of the meeting – a wonderfully diverse buffet of presentations by the members being main course.

The diversity in our program is emblematic of how much our association has evolved. Starting more than one hundred years ago as a merger between farm economists and farm managers, its agenda expanded to include analysis and design of agricultural and food policies. In the process, agricultural economics became some of the first and most distinguished practitioners of quantitative methods, statistics, and econometrics. They used “Big data” before it was cool and machine assisted. They developed creative ways to estimate supply, demand, productivity, and a bewildering array of parameters to calibrate a growing universe of microeconomic theory. The post-world war II era has seen increased research emphasis on international trade, agricultural finance, from the 1950s and 60s, economic development. Research and education efforts emphasizing environmental and resource economics and agribusiness emerged in the 1970s. The start of the new Millennium has seen a growing emphasis on food and nutrition, the bio-economy, energy, health, sustainability, and climate change. As a result of these developments, agricultural and applied economists are covering an ever-expanding portfolio of research topics-each with its own agenda and priorities. Members who are employed by government, industry and research, teaching, and extension universities face different challenges. Thankfully, the association has adapted to their needs by becoming more diverse technically, intellectually, and above all demographically. To accommodate this diversity, the Association allows the establishment of sections by members with common interests and members participate in the joint activities of the whole association as well as those of their sections. These modular sections will allow the Association to accommodate and include more diverse groups in the future.
I have been frequently asked why we should have a separate association or departments of agricultural and applied economics.  Agricultural and applied economists are the same, but different than mainstream economists[1]. We use and extend economic models and decision-making frameworks. However, we integrate them with models and findings of other disciplines. We tend to be in professional schools focusing on research problems of agriculture, energy, environment, and health. We should not aim to apply only methodologies developed by the mainstream economics profession. We tend to have an empirical, multidisciplinary emphasis, incorporating details, knowledge, and even methods from other disciplines. I would not have won the Wolf Prize in Agriculture if my work did not apply basic principles of irrigation and pest control to empirically relevant economic models. I have learned the truth in Keith Coble’s observation that, compared to most other economists – applied economists give greater weight to relevance than to elegance. Because we seek out recognizable socially relevant challenges in real-world problems, we have developed novel methods and advanced research priorities that have influenced the economics discipline as a whole. The contributions of applied economists to disciplinary mainstream include models of technology adoption and diffusion, methods to evaluate nonmarket amenities and adversities, and experimental approaches to assessing and managing risk.

Our last generation has witnessed a growing emphasis on rigorous impact assessments of public policies and science-based decision making (despite having a Climate change-denying US president). This bodes well for applied economics, as we continue to integrate knowledge from the biophysical and social sciences to elucidate the challenges humanity faces and improve public and private responses. Despite an unpredictable political climate , I am optimistic about of the future of the AAEA, and trust that our talented membership can adapt to the changing needs and opportunities facing us.

[1] See my presidential address (Zilberman, David. “Agricultural Economics as a Poster Child of Applied Economics: Big Data & Big Issues.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 101, no. 2 (2019): 353-364.) for more details.

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