Agricultural Economists on the Cusp

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

— Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

On November 8, bucking the vast majority of polls, pundits, and prediction markets, Americans have elected Donald Trump as their president and have given him a majority of seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Whatever opinion I might have of the result of the election is immaterial, first because I am not a US citizen, and so I cannot vote in this country; and second, because I am not sure what the world needs at this point is more opinion.*

One thing I do have a cogent opinion on, however, is about the serious examination of conscience agricultural and applied economists need to do–especially left-leaning agricultural and applied economists.

First off, by “agricultural and applied economists,” I mean those of us who have any mix of research, teaching, and extension appointments in (what used to be known as) agricultural economics departments at land-grant universities. I know “applied economics” encompasses more than the category just delineated, but for the purposes of this discussion, I am choosing to go with the label the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association–my professional association–uses to designate people like my colleagues and me.

Second, I talk of left-leaning agricultural and applied economists, because I believe this covers the vast majority of agricultural and applied economists. Even the most conservative agricultural and applied economists working at land-grand universities eventually must realize that it is the federal government, spending on higher education and research, which makes their career possible.

Third, I am focusing on agricultural and applied economists at land-grant universities because one of the aims of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 was to use public monies to generate knowledge that was going to contribute to public goods and to public welfare. For the last 10 years or so, more and more Americans have been questioning the value of a college degree,** and I believe that if public universities are to remain relevant and justify their existence, they have to contribute knowledge that will be used in the service of the society they evolve in. As much as I would love to argue that the state should fund knowledge for the sake of knowledge, I don’t believe this can happen without serious cross-subsidization from more publicly useful areas.

Agricultural and Applied Economists on the Cusp

I believe this is a golden moment for agricultural and applied economists. Indeed, one thing that has been made clear this last year is how “rural whites” (an expression I am not a big fan of, mostly because it is often employed scornfully) feel like they have been abandoned by their political leaders.

The underlying argument, with which it is difficult to argue if you look at data or have ever driven between the two coasts, is that as the US economy has gone from being a primarily manufacturing-based to being a primarily service-based economy, decent jobs (i.e., manufacturing jobs, which provide honest pay for honest work) have left the hinterland, a process that is largely due to technological improvements but which has been accelerated by international trade. If you want a longer albeit anecdotal version of this story, JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of how his family has fared through this process of hollowing out the hinterland.

But who better to study (i) what has led to this state of affairs and (ii) what to do about it than agricultural and applied economists? Many agricultural and applied economics departments have development economists, trade economists, regional economists, and so on among their faculty, and to my knowledge, all such departments also have on faculty extension economists–people whose job it is to translate research findings into actionable things that will help individuals, households, and communities. If land-grant departments get their act together, the agricultural and applied economics profession could well be on the cusp of hitting the big time by helping revitalize the US economy literally from within.

For example, I was trained as a development economist. Due to my research interests, I worked in and on countries and regions where a steady paycheck is virtually unknown–not because manufacturing left town, but because it has never come to town–and everyone is still involved in farming or in agribusiness.

But as one of my former advisors was fond of saying: “There aren’t two types of economic analysis, one for rich countries and the other for poor countries; there is only one type of economic analysis: The right one.” At the individual researcher level, it is entirely possible–and highly desirable–to use the concepts and methods of development economics to look inward instead of outward and to re-orient research agendas toward economically depressed regions and communities within the US. What are the relevant market failures? What are the relevant types of heterogeneity, and how does it drive welfare outcomes? What are the relevant social relationships and networks, and how do they increase or constrain welfare?*** Which nonmarket institutions have emerged, and how do they affect welfare? Those are all questions which development economists can answer. Similar arguments could probably also be made for trade economists, regional economists, and so on. Here is a really good, recent example of what I have in mind.

I am not saying every development economist needs to look inward, nor am I saying every economist at land-grant institutions needs to drop whatever it is they are doing right now and focus on the non-coastal US. But dedicating at least part of one’s research agenda, or dedicating a bigger share of department’s resources toward studying economically depressed areas might do more for this country than other things.

At the level of departments, agricultural and applied economics departments are not monolithic. Most of those departments have reinvented themselves at least once before: As the importance of the agricultural sector in the US economy has declined over the course of the 20th century, agricultural and applied economics departments went from focusing on agricultural economics to studying things like international development, environment and natural resources economics, consumer behavior, food policy, and so on. It should thus be possible for the land-grant departments to reinvent themselves once again.

People might not even need to make this decision deliberately, since it is probably not unreasonable to expect the amount of research funding available for international development to dry up relative to the amount of research funding available for domestic development in the next four years. But turning inward might do a lot more to mend the deep divide that seems to be characterizing this country than either name calling or scorn ever will.

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* I think “opinion” is an externality, i.e., there is altogether too much of it. This drove me to delete the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone the day after the election and, since then, I have deactivated my Facebook profile. Doing so made me feel like I had dumped an abusive girlfriend. I am sticking with Twitter because it is a useful medium to communicate with other academics, but I only use it when working on my computer.

** I think this is mistaken. In a few words, I believe the correct statement is not “a college degree is worthless,” but “a college degree is worthless by itself.” The Great Recession of 2008 introduced a glut of college graduates on the labor market, many of whom chose to get a more advanced degree to make themselves more competitive. The end result has been hysteresis whereby one now needs a Masters or some post-college education to get a professional job.

*** A natural question is: Why aren’t people in economically depressed areas of the hinterland moving to the urban and/or coastal areas?” One of the most compelling answers I have ever read in development economics is that put forth by Munshi and Rosenzweig in a paper titled “Why Is Mobility in India So Low?,” in which they find that people in India do not move toward places where there are better economic opportunities in part because doing so would involve giving up their social network, the members of which provides (partial) insurance against adverse shocks. I would not be surprised if a number of Americans–who live in a country that is particularly stingy when it comes to providing a social safety net–living in economically depressed areas don’t move to where the (mainly service, sometimes manufacturing) jobs are partly because doing so would involve giving up the social protection derived from family.

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