30 Mar 2011

Thank you, Professor Wantrup!

I was a Wantrup Fellow at UC Berkeley for two years, and that position gave me the freedom to pursue my research on the political economy of natural resources (and create a public good, this blog) without worrying about how to pay the bills.*

Siegfried von Ciriacy-Wantrup died in 1980, but his bequest** lives on.

If you are interested in the institutions for managing natural resources, then I recommend that you read a few of my posts on Wantrup's work:
I credit Wantrup for explaining how decisions are made on three levels: establishing the constitution, making rules allowed under the constitution, and making decisions under the rules. People tend to spend too little time on deviations from the rules (conflict theory, corruption) and how rules are made (public choice, principal-agent dynamics), let alone constitutional limits. See more in my review of the Calculus of Consent.

Bottom Line: Institutions (rules and norms) matter, and this funding institution allowed me to avoid the fetish for mathematical research to spend more time trying to understand our institutions for managing natural resources and the environment -- and then communicate those ideas/opinions to you :)

* Although I am employed again (for research), I still see little sign of professional support for teaching and outreach to the general public. This is depressing to me, since I see much too much energy going into publication (which counts for professional advancement) and too little into dissemination or implementation (which does not, except maybe via consulting). It's still possible that the "aguanomics" brand will make it possible for me to support myself teaching, blogging, and talking to reporters, citizens and policy makers -- especially since I'm not too worried about material success or comfort. But academics like me are definitely in the minority. The majority worries about paying the bills and/or doesn't care about reaching the world outside their office.

** "For the purposes of this fellowship, natural resources are defined broadly to include environmental resources. The fellowship encourages, but is not limited to, policy-oriented research. Applications are open to scholars from any social science discipline, and related professional fields such as law and planning, who will make significant contributions to research on natural resource economics broadly defined. Preference will be given to proposals whose orientation is broadly institutional and/or historical, and which are conceptually and theoretically innovative. Proposals with a primarily statistical or econometric purpose are not eligible for consideration." Although I loved that last part, a number of colleagues denounced it as barring "talented" economists mathematicians.


stickman said...


Side comment, but one that I would appreciate your insight on:

Do you think that an Econ PhD is worth it? (Specifically when it comes to the field of natural resources and environmental issues.)

Of course, it gives you credibility... But do you ever feel shoehorned into the narrow world of academia by your advanced degree? In hindsight, would you have advised your younger self to pursue opportunities in the private (water/resources) sector instead?

David Zetland said...

Haha -- I don't think a PhD is "worth it" if you're interested in most aspects of water/resources. It qualifies you for original research (and some credibility), but most water issues require hands-on effort to wrestle within existing institutions and decision-makers. Most of them can be persuaded with a good argument and far fewer by an academic POV (a kick in the head would be more effective). The key, however, is access. How do you get in to talk to people? That's just as likely with a PhD as being good over beers -- and 6-8 years of study means passing up a LOT of beers.

The Pasadena Pundit said...

The End of Abundance: A Paradigm in Search of Reality

Anonymous said...

It depends what you want to do as relates to these issues. There are plenty of exciting opportunities to contribute without an economics PhD, spanning everything from education, legal, operations, etc. If you know you want to work in this field, that's part A. Part B is knowing what skillset you want to apply to A, so it sounds like you're halfway there, which is farther than many people!

Praveena Sridhar said...

Good post (as usual)and thanks for sharing info on Prof. Wantrup's work. I've kept the links for a detailed read.

Stickman's question is quite relevant and something that I've been exploring too. David, your view almost confirms my hunch about the need for a Ph.D. I've felt that if you really want to make a difference/contribute to the real problems in water sector then you got to be out in the field exploring, understanding and at the same time matching solutions to the ground situation. Many here (India) feel that one needs to go back to the university for a Ph.D to be able to contribute or even to be considered an "expert" whereas it only acts as a lockup & an insulating period if you come to think of it. While many have gone over to address specific issues in their doctoral research, it doesn't really add up much in terms of relevance/fit in the existing system. So overall, I think a Ph.D isn't really that essential for doing meaningful work in this sector.

You've put it good when you say "The majority worries about paying the bills and/or doesn't care about reaching the world outside their office."

stickman said...

Thanks for the comments, David and others... FWIW, I didn't mean to hijack your comments thread here!

I can agree with a lot said above and, of course, this ties into something you've discussed before: Getting some work/life experience before going for the PhD. (Having done my share of this, I completely agree. Also makes me feel a little more comfortable about not getting stuck into an academic ivory tower...)

I get the sense that the problems you describe are less acute in Europe than the US. From my anecdotal experience, schools in the US are more (detrimentally) focused on pure academic research, at the expense of practical engagement with industry.

No arguing about the beers though. I know my fair share of public servants that like to hang out by the bars ;)

David Zetland said...

@stickman (et al.) -- don't worry. Your question and these answers are totally appropriate. Lots of PhD students do not know where they are going (so they are not necessarily missing on other world changing opportunities) or only have a vague sense of wanting to live/work on campus. Others with a goal and motivation can take a much clearer path -- PhD or not -- towards a goal. I entered grad school with a BS at 32 years old and had LOTS of experience, so I was disappointed to find that most studies (and later work) to be far too *unrealistic* (e.g., "we simulate an economic instrument" means "we make shit up"). PP's point (sarcasm included) about the gap between paradigm and reality in the academic world.

That said, I'm happy I have a PhD. That's mostly b/c I really DO like thinking in systematic ways about new innovations. My "problem" is that I am also trying to communicate them to the people who may want to use them, and that's where I am either stymied (it's tough to get access) or useless (they can't understand or implement my unrealistic idea). Another line of thought is to wait 7 (tenure) or 20 (reputation) years *after* the PhD before venturing into public debates. I think that's MUCH TOO HIGH a price to pay. If I can't get involved now, then I want out.

I'm having some success in some places, but it's VERY hard to measure... Sometimes, I just try to entertain b/c laughter is a useful product.

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