Author Archives: aje

Media engagements

The chief goal of any academic is to have scholarly impact – to be published in elite journals and for your work to be read, shared, and cited. But it’s also common to seek wider impact, and publicise those findings and implications with society at large.

One problem is that our research topics are often driven by the existing literature. Therefore pursuing an academic career can easily become a slide towards wider irrelevance. As we focus on scaling the ivory tower, we lose track of what anyone else cares about. Before we realise it, the landscape looks like this:

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we can identify the areas where media interest overlaps with our research interests. Therefore we can create a list of topics we feel qualified to talk about, and seek media engagements. We can be available for comment and publish op-eds on newsworthy issues. But be careful. We might have made scholarly contributions to the field, and we may well be experts, but those topics won’t map perfectly onto “my research”.

Once we abandon the solid grounding of our published competence, we’ve started a dangerous journey. There is a risk that we end up like this:

By being receptive to media engagements we are opening ourselves to the pull of opportunity. But what your PR company deem to be a “hit” (i.e. being quoted in an article in a magazine no one cares about) is not really a “hit”, and a desire to do this tempts us to stray outside our areas of expertise. If someone wants a comment we provide it – it builds the brand and it’s fun. The ego is nourished, we feel that we’re representing our institution, we’re being productive. However our titles and status carry authority, and the wider public are likely to confuse the light blue dot for a dark blue dot. I believe that it is unethical to utilise our credentials for matters outside of one’s expertise. (I could add links here, but I won’t…).

The holy grail, therefore, is to end up like this:

I think fame seeking academics have two potential strategies. However both of them carry risks.

  1. If you can’t beat them, join them. The first option is to move our research towards wherever the media interest lies (either by tweaking our current research projects in that direction; or by starting new research projects from scratch). However using current media interest as the guiding principle of your academic strategy has the potential to backfire. It takes time to gain academic legitimacy and what’s to say interest won’t move on? In addition, the media interest will draw in other academics to create a contested and competitive environment that is attracting opportunists. As I see more and more people jumping on the blockchain bandwagon I assume that they’re following this strategy (although this is a charitable interpretation because in many cases it’s probably a light blue dot rather than a dark blue one…). I’m wary.
  2. Hope the mountain comes to Mohammed. The second way to occupy the overlap is to get your head down, do quality work, rise to the top of your field, get widespread recognition, and become the go to person for that topic. That, in itself, can be newsworthy. Win prizes, break records, give talks at elite institutions.

Personally, I am not sure what to do. I’ve tried to be entrepreneurial by choosing a few topics that I think have the potential to become important, and I am working hard to improve the quality of my scholarly work. But I’m largely abandoning the aim of creating a media profile for my research.

Let’s be honest, the media generally do not care about academic research. When we issue press releases for a new publication it’s because we want to share it. However even if it’s published in an open access journal newspapers will rarely link to the actual paper anyway. Even PR companies have a tendency to act as gatekeepers for the actual paper, and promote the top line findings without allowing third parties to actually verify them. We have a crisis of scientific replication and yet there’s a complete disjoint between how research is presented and our ability to engage with it.

Journalists don’t care about your research, they care about their article. They are writing articles to a deadline and need to fill them. They need contacts who will be available and tell them what they expect to hear. Editors don’t care about your research. They care about copy. They need people who supply well written content on a theme they want to publish.

I am aware that my profession and institution are underrepresented by people who aren’t white males. And as a white male I should reflect on my role in that. As I lose the novelty of youth I question whether the best use of my time is supplying free content to unremarkable publications by crowding out other voices.

***

Pivoting away from attempts to promote our research profile, however, doesn’t mean wallowing in academic irrelevance, and it doesn’t mean giving up on communicating economic ideas. It just means a recognition that our biggest value to the media is almost certainly a result of our teaching knowledge rather than our research findings. This is because the pool of media interest in which we’re able to play in is much wider when we act as teachers rather than researchers.

This may seems as though I’m risking becoming a light blue dot. But wearing our teaching hats massively expands our scope of “expertise”, provided we recognise the topics will be broader. As the awesome Steve Horwitz recently said on Facebook,

Advice for young economists who wonder whether they have enough expertise on a topic to do media requests on it:

If you think you can explain your views to an Intro class, you can do media on that topic.

My caveat to that was:

you need to be able to explain it to an Intro class and it needs to be an issue that you would indeed explain to an Intro class

So rather than send our new PR agency a list of my research topics, I’ve sent the following:

  • Price gouging – if a firm raises prices during a natural disaster I’m happy to defend their choice to do so and explain why it actually benefits consumers
  • Creative destruction – if a firm goes bankrupt I’m happy to explain why this is crucial to a competitive market
  • Free trade – if there’s a story about tariffs I’m happy to explain how they harm consumers and make us collectively worse off
  • Offshoring – if a firm offshores production I’m happy to defend their decision and explain how this benefits workers in (typically) poorer countries
  • Corporation tax – I’m happy to defend cuts to corporation tax on the grounds that they boost wages of that companies employees
  • Tax avoidance – I’m happy to defend the use of “aggressive” tax avoidance schemes and explain why the problem is complexity in the tax code
  • Efficient Market Hypothesis – if an investment firm claims to be able to outperform a market index I’m happy to argue that this is bad investment advice

I also think it’s potentially legitimate to comment on hot topics such as:

  • The gender pay gap
  • Brexit
  • A specific companies strategy
  • Executive pay
  • Congestion charging

Provided you limit your comments to the simple application of the economic way of thinking. However I fear that this won’t be providing journalists with what they want (which is a hook, or something controversial), and there’s a very real danger that you do turn into a light blue dot. So I personally avoid these topics. Leave them for commentators and opinion leaders and academic experts in the field. Don’t wade in as one masquerading as the other.

Finally, Steve’s also right to point out that such media engagements are also advantageous for the institution. Indeed I’ve stopped seeing media work as part of my research profile. It’s actually organisational (and civic) citizenship.

Travel Guide to Minsk

I visited Minsk expecting a Soviet time machine.

I thought it would be like Moscow was in 1992.

But I was wrong.

Yes, it’s architecture and visible insignia reflect the fact that most of the city was completely rebuilt straight after the second world war. Military uniform is everywhere, tractors roam the streets, school children look immaculate. And the absence of a democratic transition casts an intriguing shadow of communist rule. But the city is vibrant, affluent, and spotlessly clean. It feels more like a Baltic city break than an Eastern European industrial wasteland.

Outside of Minsk there’s an efficient train network and the surrounding countryside is beautiful and famously peaceful. I strongly recommend a visit to Belarus, and hope these notes are useful (also check out Joe Jenkins’ “Postcard from . . . MinskFinancial Times, April 21 2017).

Flights

Belarus has connections to most major European cities. The national airline, BELAVIA, do a direct flight from London Gatwick to Minsk several times per week. If you want to travel by train, there’s only one man to ask.

Arrival at Minsk airport

Accommodation

  • Using a travel agent used to be a necessity because they could provide a letter of invitation (which was mandatory to obtain a visa). I used MinskLuxx who have an array of city-centre apartments and helpful services.
  • Centrally located chain hotels include: Crowne Plaza and DoubleTree by Hilton.

Getting around

  • Taxis to/from the airport cost ~ €20. Licensed taxis have yellow plates and can be trusted, and Uber is also available. There’s also a bus service to the train station.
  • Trains are cheap and easy to use.
  • The Metro is simple to use and has a regular service. Each journey requires 1 token (60 Kopeks) which can be bought at the ticket office.

Things to see

Minsk itself is easy to explore on foot. I recommend the following:

Day 1:

  • City gates (outside the train station)
  • Independence square (and the shopping centre underneath)
  • GUM shopping centre
  • Victory Square
  • Gorky Park

Day 2:

  • Great Patriotic War Museum
  • Botanic Gardens
  • National Library

For more: http://www.belarus.by/en/travel/belarus-life/minsk-attractions and https://34travel.me/gotobelarus/en/post/minsk-english-guide.

Restaurants

There are clusters of cafes and restaurants in the following places:

  • The upper town (vulica Zybickaja) – this is the main tourist area and contains several bars and restaurants on the banks of the river. 442 is the best place to watch soccer and sample interesting beer. Cherdok do great burgers in a laid back setting. Malt & Hops have a long and classy bar serving beer and many malts. El Pushka is a fun and intimate tequila bar. Beer Cap is a classic Eastern European-style bar – an outdoor labyrinth with interesting beers and a range of customers.
  • Trajeckaja nabiarežnaja (the old town) – the only real area of pre-WW2 buildings, it has a nostalgic feel compared to the rest of the city.
  • Karl Marx street – a number of classy bistros and restaurants with sincere cooking.
  • Kastrycnickaja Street – former industrial units now famous for bright murals and hipster coffee.

For a distinctly Belarusian experience, Rakovsky Brovar is a large, popular brewery serving traditional food in a friendly atmosphere. And watching the world pass by at the bar at Centralny is one of Minks’s cultural highlights.

Typical prices (as of 2017)

Minsk provides a fascinating mixture of standard European ambience and a gripping historical context. Belarus is not quite Poland and not quite Russia – it is something else. Something tangible and settled. But forward looking and optimistic. It’s truly unique.

Business plan ecology

A complex system is one with “many dynamically interacting parts” (Beinhocker 2006, p.18). If the economy is a complex, emergent order, then you – future managers – are in the driving seat.

How does an economy resemble an evolutionary model?

  • A design space of possible designs
  • A schema that codes those designs –> business plans
  • A set of building blocks that underlie the designs –> physical and social technology
  • A schema reader that turns the business plans into reality –> management teams
  • An environment where evolutionary competition takes place –> the marketplace

Note that we’re not talking about firms, which are merely legal fictions. We’re talking about a business.

Beinhocker (2006 p.334) makes the argument that Microsoft’s success was built on an evolutionary approach. Rather than bet big on a particular development in the operating system market, they spread their bets across a number of different experiments. They invested in MS-DOS; did a joint venture with IBM; did a joint venture with Unix; bought a PC manufacturer that used Unix; invested in software development; and invested in Windows. Under conditions of uncertainty, instead of choosing which future is most likely to happen, it’s better to plan for an array of potential futures. This form of scenario planning can be very powerful because when you start to receive feedback on which of those futures is occurring, you can redirect resources towards an existing business plan.

In an evolutionary framework, the objective of a business is to endure and grow over time. It is not to “make a profit”, rather this is one (of several) constraints on the ability to endure and grow. These constraints include:

  • Generate a competitive return for shareholders in order to attract capital
  • Attract employees through appropriate incentives and compensation
  • Attract suppliers through mutually advantageous agreements
  • Create value for customers by producing goods and services that are demanded
  • Meet all legal and regulatory obligations

So how do you ensure that you endure and grow over time? How can a business discover new ways to create value, and adequately compensate their stakeholders? Simple: adapt and execute. Try lots of things and see what works. Do more of what works and do less of what doesn’t. Combine an adaptive walk (small steps that get you to a higher plain) with random jumps (to discover new starting points).To do this effectively, we need to recognise what type of bets we’re making:

  • How risky are they?
  • How related are they to current activity?
  • How long until they pay off?

There’s been a trend for companies to grow into vast conglomerates, diversifying their activities through different businesses in different markets. But what we’re alluding to here is more like venture capital. They are “portfolios of strategy experiments”, and their varied investments can all be assessed on the dimensions of “risk, relatedness, and time horizon” (Beinhocker 2006, p.347).

The ecological landscape is characterised by power laws, not a normal distrubution. And this generates a number of strategic insights:

  • Market forces are pretty efficient
  • The curve is extremely steep at the bookends
  • The curve is getting steeper
  • Size isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing, either
  • Industry matters, a lot
  • Mobility is possible—but rare.

Finally, work to building an environment conducive to all this:

We may not be able to predict or direct economic evolution, but we can design our institutions and societies to be better or worse evolvers” (Beinhocker 2006, p.324).

Podcasts

I use Overcast to listen to podcasts. The smart speed setting quickens the pace without you even noticing and I usually listen to 1.2x normal speed. If you want to get into podcasts I highly recommend tweaking these settings to get through them faster. An added bonus is that if you’re listening to a proper series or radio play at normal speed, you “feel the benefit” and get super engrossed. 

Economics

  • EconTalk – the original economics podcast featuring an array of fascinating guests. Each episode is typically over an hour long which can be daunting, but permits a relaxed and casual conversation. As a former student of Russ Roberts, I thoroughly enjoy recapturing some of the intellectual curiosity and excitement of grad school through EconTalk.
  • Macro Musings – David Beckworth is a wonderful economist, and by focusing on monetary macro he provides a consistently high quality conversation on a topic I know I will want to listen to. I think it’s pitched at the perfect level to walk listeners through the career trajectory and major insights of an impressive guestlist.

Business and management

  • Planet Money – Short (20 minute) episodes that illuminate important economic concepts through interviews. Can’t get enough of them.
  • Stuff You Should Know – Well produced, entertainingly presented, always interesting.
  • Waking Up with Sam Harris – Lengthy and deep conversations with fascinating thinkers on topics such as the multiverse, AI, identity politics, and meditation.
  • The Investors Field Guide – I don’t listen to it (yet) but it’s been highly recommended to me.
  • Adam Buxton – on the surface this is a comedy show, where likeable comic Adam Buxton (from Adam & Joe semi-fame) chats with his “showbusiness” friends. I enjoy it because it provides an honest and sincere look at the thought process behind public speaking, professional success, and the art of humour.
  • The Edge with Joey Barton – I have sympathy for Barton and find him a highly engaging character. In this series of interviews he demonstrates his curiosity for what drives peak performance with applications for sport, politics, and all forms of management.

True Crime

  • Generation Why – two American friends present and dissect famous cases in an informal, engaging manner.
  • Casefile True Crime – the Australian narrator, following a well crafted script, provides an engrossing experience.
  • Criminal – somewhat hit and miss collection of interesting cases, but the good ones stay with you.

Series

  • The Sounds Serious – a well conceived and executed spoof of the true crime genre. Some daft comedic moments and surprisingly subtle nods to The Day Today.
  • The Butterfly Effect – very touching business history emphasising creative destruction and unintended consequences. High recommend.
  • Missing Richard Simmons – originally presents itself as having the ingredients of a unique and enjoyable mystery, but sadly turns into a slightly disturbing hounding.
  • S Town – a fascinating and gripping story, but I was somewhat annoyed by the presenter’s self-serving presence.
  • Homecoming – more of a play than a podcast, but one that utilises the medium very nicely. Season 2 was meh.
  • Serial Season 1 – a documentary about the death of Hae Min Lee featuring interviews with Adnan Syed, who is in prison for the murder. But did he do it? This helped build the genre of the developing real time podcast, and bingelistening to this with noise cancelling headphones, on a transatlantic red eye, was super sweet. The theme music still gives me shivers.

Classic interview questions

If you had to kill someone, who would it be?

Have you ever worn odd shoes? Could you envision it?

When have you spent < £100 on something that gave you an immense amount of satisfaction?

What’s the biggest coincidence you’ve ever experienced?

  • A coincidence is “A surprising concurrence of events with no apparent causal connection.”
  • I like this one
  • Another famous one is a man picks ups ringing pay phone, and it’s a lady trying to get hold of him but she dialled his payroll number by mistake. But David Spiegelhalter claims to have 10 other examples of this happening! (see his website)
  • Luck = chance taken personally

Do you sincerely believe in any conspiracy theories?

Is cunning a good trait?

  • “Instead of following an open, clearly understandable line of behaviour, cunning is calculating how other people will react to certain forms of behaviour which are hiding the end game”… “this ability to assess things rapidly and then to act in a way that is not immediately readable/ understandable by the people around us in order to get an advantage that some people will doubtless feel is an unfair advantage” (Tim Parkes, translator of Machiavelli who, incidentally, was always truthful towards his wife)

Tell that story, the time you did the wrong thing because you were scared (link)

When were you at your happiest?

Do you have a favourite joke?

Tell me about the time you met the right person at the wrong time. (It doesn’t need to be romantic).

Imagine your funeral, and your family and friends have had a few drinks and are thinking of you. They want to make an idiosyncratic gesture to your memory. What would they do? What should they do?

Writing reviews

Reviewers come in numerous categories. One group, often the most gushing in their praise, show few signs of actually having read the book. A second group absorb enough of the introduction and of passages relating to their own specialty top pass resounding judgments. A third group, in a distinct minority, follow careful reading with balanced comments. And then there’s the Worshipful Company of Whingers, Carpers and Nit-Pickers, whose sole aim in life it to find fault.

Davies, N., (2006) Europe East & West, Jonathan Cape

Brand loyalty

Brands matter, and AJE is brought to you by:

Past members

Apple – design brief moved into sleek and fragile rather than tactile and durable, no longer intuitive interface (e.g. access to Podcasts through iTunes)

Joseph Joseph – now skimming from existing customers and diluting the brand with gimmicks instead of novel solutions

Performance Review

The underlying problem is that all performance reviews (especially corporate ones) tend to be costly and arbitrary. Deloitte have a new approach that intends to simplify the process by asking 4 questions:

  1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus (five point scale)
  2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team (five point scale)
  3. This person is at risk for low performance (yes/no)
  4. This person is ready for promotion today (yes/no)

I like the idea but not the questions chosen (they are too hierarchical). Mine would be something along the following lines:

  1. Does this person excel at their job?
    • For example, is there documented evidence of other people attempting to learn from them?
  2. Is this person a pleasure to work with?
    • For example, would you look forward to making a transatlantic trip with them?

I recently became aware of the concept of a Personal Boardroom. I think it is a good way to recognise whether you have an effective support network, and to identify why your career may be stalling. The idea is that you should have people in your life – with whom you are in regular contact – that perform each of the following roles:

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