Tuesday, July 11, 2006

In Defense of the American Association of Wine Economists

I had a heated debate with some fellow economists today about the American Association of Wine Economists. I initially laughed at the idea when I read about it on the freakonomics blog. On the surface, it sounds kind of absurd. The economists I was talking with (and apparently many of their colleagues), however, are outraged by its existence. I feel that their outrage is completely unfounded.

For me, this is a simple economic story. A group of people decide that there is demand for something (in this case an organization to bring researchers with similar interests together and provide an outlet for their ideas in the form of a journal) and decide to supply it. While I may find some markets weird (e.g., why is there mayonnaise; that stuff is gross), I do not think it is ok to be outraged at certain markets’ existence and invective hurled at the suppliers unless it is clear that there are significant external costs associated with the existence of this market.

According to these other economists, this organization is an elitist vanity project of no academic value. They argue that it exists solely to allow a bunch of elite senior faculty to use their research budgets to travel to France and drink wine. Further, struggling faculty are forced to feign interest in wine and spend money they don’t have traveling to conferences in Bordeaux because advancing one’s career depends critically on sucking up to these elite senior faculty. As such, this organization must be opposed vigorously because it is both useless and unfair.

I disagree with both of these points. Let me start with the claim of uselessness. I think this is for the market to decide. If there is sufficient demand for the product (and there may not be this is all very new), then I can’t see how it can be called useless or of no academic value. To me, this is simply an example of the increasingly common phenomenon of a niche market associated with a long tail (something I’ve been wanting to blog about for awhile, for now, see Chris Anderson’s website).

They argue that the demand for this product has nothing to do with scholarship and everything to do with cronyism and wasting research money drinking wine. At the time, I was not informed enough to refute this statement, but I was highly skeptical of its merits (and ultimately unless you can convince me that there is real harm from this, I am not going to get all that worked up over even this stuff – more on that later). Now that I have been to the organization’s website and perused their journal, I don’t see how one can draw such a conclusion. The journal they have produced seems to have completely reasonable articles that I imagine address some demand (indeed, a random commenter at the freakonomics blog was very interested in the article on Champagne). Moreover, the journal’s website indicates that the financial support for this endeavor was provided by Whitman College. I find in unreasonable to argue that Whitman College, a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, WA, would devote scarce resources supporting something that lacked merit. In fact, given the attachment of some high profile faculty and the large interest in wine around the world, I would argue that this was a very smart investment. It raises Whitman’s profile, its connection to some important people, and helps a small place carve out a niche for itself.

As for the claim that this group represents an elitist, exclusionary club which harms the prospects of struggling faculty, every part of this argument is easily refuted. As mentioned previously, during the discussion, the organization was represented as consisting of a bunch of elite senior faculty that would only hold meetings in far off locales like Bordeaux. Further, it was argued that getting ahead in academics requires that one invest heavily in forming social connections with these elites. As such, struggling faculty must feign interest in wine and waste their scarce research budgets on expensive trips because otherwise no one will pay attention to their work.

The first (and most essential) assumption in this argument is that this will be a group of super elites worthy of schmoozing with. However, as yet, it is unclear who will join this group. It is true that a couple of high profile people are involved, but the list of editors and editorial advisory board members hardly suggests that this is some super elitist organization. The same is true of the scientific committee and list of presenters from 1st Conference of the Society on Quantitative Gastronomy (a highly related group – whose papers also appear to be quite interesting and not devoid of academic merit -- see the previous post for an example). Given the lack of evidence that this group includes a disproportionate number of elite faculty, I fail to see how there is some extra incentive to attend its conferences in order to network. Until proven otherwise, I can only assume that the people who will join this group will be those who are actually interested in this topic.

The second assumption is that participation in the meetings of this group will require travel to expensive locations. I believe this assumption stems from the fact that 1st International Conference on Quantitative Gastronomy (which the AAWE linked to) was held in Bordeaux. Of course, that group (based on who formed the scientific committee, who presented, and who organized it) appears to be heavily European. So holding a conference in Europe would seem reasonable. While the AMERICAN Association of Wine Economists has yet to meet, it seems reasonable to assume that they might meet in the US (e.g., some place like Napa or, better, Oregon’s Willamette Valley). As such, I don’t see how one can conclude that participation in this group will be prohibitively expensive.

Finally, I strongly reject the notion that attending a conference for the sole reason of sucking up to elite faculty is likely to produce any additional advancement in academics. While it is certainly important to raise one’s profile in one’s field, simply chatting with random “big name” economists is, at best, a small part of this. As in all social relationships, the essential part of developing a useful relationship with important faculty involves providing them something of value. In academics this usually means that you write papers and make comments that they find interesting and important (although doing lackey work for them is also common). Focusing on doing good work in one’s own area of interest and working hard to market yourself and your ideas are the essential means to achieving meaningful relationships with academics. Pretending to be interested in a topic in order to have the opportunity to maybe chat with some important faculty member (who maybe doesn’t even work in your field) is extremely unlikely to increase one’s social capital and is a very poor strategy for career advancement.

Thus any outrage over the existence of such a group is misplaced. While it may seem silly to some, I see no evidence that its existence is harmful or inefficient. In fact, it seems like a natural result of changes in technology which have dramatically increased the supply of economic research and the growth in demand (perhaps related to price changes from the growth of supply) for economic research outside of academic economists. I suspect that many similar niche areas will arise in the coming years, so my fellow economists should probably get used to this sort of thing.

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