Question- vs. data- or relation-driven research

Some scholars tackle simple and high-level questions taking advantage of the explosion of new data. In so doing, they enjoy the first-mover advantages and citations. Other scholars network and try to be faster in grasping tastes of journal editors. Both approaches make the game easier to play, that is, make it easier to publish and get tenure and promoted. There is nothing wrong with these efforts. Scholars are playing by the rules of the game that are designed to incentivize them to explore new data that are worth attention and the topics that experienced researchers believe are important. But such data- and relation-driven research are not without costs. They are more likely to encounter competing work (i.e., personal cost) and be written in a hurry and thus of lower quality (i.e., profession-specific cost). Also, the social value and the real impact of knowledge research collectively create can be limited (i.e., social cost).

The social cost can be particularly large if the literature, or precisely scholars who lead the literature serving as journal editors, care little about it. Unlike the personal and profession-specific costs, which directly comprise utility functions of individual researchers and institutions, the social cost only conditionally makes its way into their utility functions. So, universities hire scholars who are capable of doing data- and relation-driven research faster than others while not sacrificing academic rigor much over scholars who do question-driven research, which may create greater social value yet with a lower chance of publication. Therefore, as long as the number of top journal publications stands as the single most important evaluation criteria and journal editors maintain their predominant influence over the direction of the entire literature, we bear the risk that scholars cater to the literature, not necessarily the society the (social science) literature are meant to ultimately cater to. We need to rethink about our publication system and the incentive it supplies to academic communities.

Job market paper: young vs. mature literature

Ph.D. students and junior faculty are discouraged to enter the mature literature. It is a crowded area where incumbents easily kill early-stage ideas. The probability of top journal publications is lower and so is that of getting tenure. They are instead advised to enter the young and growing literature where research demand is high and its supply is low. While the advice is entirely sensible, if one is confident enough to deliver new insights based on his or her unique experience and superior knowledge, why not jump into the mature literature? The literature is mature at least in part because it addresses import questions and also demands fresh brains to improve old, or outdated, thoughts.

Institution and economic growth

Small firms are subcontractors either in their direct or indirect relation against large firms. They develop new technologies if doing so is incentive compatible, i.e. if entitled to the rents they generate by putting an extra effort to innovate. Therefore, in the program in which large firms decide the level of small firms’ effort to contract for, they must ensure that small firms enjoy a part of the rents and they remain incentivized to develop new technologies. To the extent that technologies help raise profits, it is rational for managers to do so. They often don’t, however, in reality. Such myopic behavior undermines large-firms’ long-term profits. As a result, both large and small firms are worse off. It is therefore necessary that lawmakers and regulators jump in and restrict large firms’ behavior by legislation (e.g. punitive damages) and enforcement. In so doing, a ground is maintained over which small businesses continue to innovate, grow to hire people and spawn skilled labor and entrepreneurs, and eventually let the economy grow. The contractual relationship between small and large firms highlights why and how the institutional devices of legislation and enforcement are critical for economic growth. Their quality are particularly important for developed economies, which are little aided by population inflation, the strongest booster for growth, and among the main features that distinguish developed economies that continue growing against those that don’t.

Social science of social scientists

Social scientists tend to pay little attention to the society often for the reason they are busy doing science. It is contradictory in that the society is where problems are and they do science to solve them. This is probably of reasons why progress in science does not translate at the same rate into progress of the society. I see the majority of social scientists are either i) from financially-unconstrained families or ii) from financially-constrained families but with high enough marks to win scholarships. During the formation period (i.e. in their youth), either group barely interact with middle and bottom classes. Such a tendency is stronger in areas of social science, for which demand for human capital is lower and so is supply from constrained families. It is therefore necessary to change policies as to education and human capital management to i) better incentivize licensed researchers to improve their understanding of the society and ii) facilitate those who have lower qualification but have richer understanding of the society to do social science research.

Sustainable economics

Economics rooted in western values is destructive, the impression I have formed for the past two years learning economics in the US. Its added value comes mainly out of progress of civilization. It views the nature as a subject to which they make changes rather than a subject from which they learn. It parallels a common mistake one makes in his/her relationship with family members and friends. An individual tends to put greater effort into changing others to the shape it considers ideal rather than accepting them at their own currencies and honoring them for what they are. Economics stems from a similarly erroneous presumption that mankind is superior to other species on earth both contemporaneously and historically and can make a more efficient use of resources.

Consequently, economics has contributed to spawning unsustainable systems destroying a sustainable one, the nature. A fact that is overlooked in the course is that the nature has sustained for billions of years, whereas the socio-economic systems the mankind created and tested had sustained only for up to thousands of years. Worse, the latest systems including the one for which capitalists play pivotal roles are expected to die out in hundreds of years upon the depletion of resource, unless necessary, smart corrections are made. The inefficient use of resources is, however, not the most imminent problem facing capitalist economies. Capitalism, which engendered the economies that proved to be more sustainable than communist economies in the sense that they preserve incentives of people to work hard, is also proving that it is fundamentally flawed and nearing the end of its life, or at least a major departure from its original shape.

Capitalist economies, with little check and balance involved especially during the aftermath of the Cold War, has suffered an ever-increasing inequality in wealth and is rapidly converging to an economic state in which individuals are left with little incentives to work hard. It is the state communist economies reached and found themselves unsustainable. Nevertheless, economists are still disproportionately exploring civilizational alternatives to cope with civilizational problems uncovered. I believe that such a bias or ignorance about non-civilizational alternatives is a reason they keep failing to find a way out. And that they really need to pay attention to eastern wisdoms which take into account both civilizational and non-civilizational solutions. I frequently find possible solutions to many unanswered (or poorly answered) fundamental economic questions out of eastern values that are planted deeply in Asian histories and philosophies. I may discuss them in more detail later.



The value of a person

Assume that the value of a person is measured by his or her marginal contribution to the society (MCS), which can be estimated by the difference between the value of the society with and without the person. It is speculated that a person who is more educated and experienced is likely to have a greater MCS. But a dimension that is often overlooked is its direction. The sign – either positive or negative – of the MCS is not necessarily a function of education and experience whereas its magnitude arguably is. As such, unless the distribution of the MCS for the highly educated and experienced is proven to be “substantially” negatively skewed in most states of the world, it is not only imprecise but also risky to assess the value (or expected contribution to an organization or the society) of a person primarily based on his or her education and experience and appoint them for high positions, especially for the positions that are systematically little monitored. They would be the subject of a higher variation, yet not necessarily a higher mean, of the MCS.

Research interest

PhD students often choose research areas and methodologies in their first or second years. It helps them develop early in their academic careers competence in selected subareas and research methods and distinguish themselves from fellow researchers. But, this seemly rational approach may later turn out to be irrational for a couple of reasons. It is particularly the case when the early decision serves to justify students’ not making much of an effort to learn about other subareas and analytical tools not actively used in their chosen subareas.

Firstly, researchers never know for sure – even if they feel confident at the time of decision – what questions they end up answering in the future. Confining themselves to particular research areas and methodologies in an early stage of their academic careers is like a golfer choosing an iron before seeing where to fly a ball, or an engineer selecting tools before knowing what to make. Secondly, research amounts to connecting dots (a metaphor for innovation used by Steve Jobs in his popular Stanford commencement speech in 2005), and the easiest way of increasing the scope of dots to which one is exposed is to explore subareas within the area they major. If widening the spectrum of dots helps one connect and rearrange them to innovate and, say, an economics PhD student choose to be specialized in industrial organization, it is the most efficient for her to explore other subareas of economics such as macroeconomics, econometrics, and financial economics before turning her eyes to relatively distant areas such as anthropology and chemistry.

OCASL 2nd place in Fall 2015

A picture taken after our last game against Still Kickin on October 31, 2015. At the game we lost 0-1 and failed to win first place for this fall season. But we, Spicy Boys, did great work and had a good season. Spicy Boys is a regional soccer team composed mainly of doctoral students at UNC and Duke. In the following winter, the team plays under a new name Spicy Boys II Men, while I am going to be off for the season. See you all again in Spring 2016.