A Good Conference

By Scott Gehlbach

What makes for a good conference? The opportunity to see old friends and make new ones. Quality panels with work that challenges and crosses intellectual boundaries. Outstanding plenary sessions. Pleasantly situated receptions and dinners.

And what sort of conferences satisfy these criteria? To my mind, those that are small enough that everybody can fit into a banquet hall, that bring together adjacent disciplines, and that are held in interesting places. These are the meetings that people mark on their calendars a year in advance.

I have a couple of conferences that fall into this bin, and I’m just back from one of them: the annual meeting of the Society for Institutional and Organizational Economics (SIOE), formerly known as the International Society for New Institutional Economics (ISNIE). I think of this as the conference that brings together anybody who can trace a line to the Nobel Prize winners Ronald Coase, Douglass North, Elinor Ostrom, and Oliver Williamson. That’s a big chunk of three disciplines—economics, political science, and law—with smaller parts of several more.

This year’s SIOE meetings were held in New York, as Columbia’s Bentley MacLeod is the incoming president. My friend Sergei Guriev is the current president, and he gave an outstanding address at the gala dinner on inequality and well-being in economic transition—the subject of this year’s report of the EBRD, where Sergei serves as chief economist. (Spoiler alert: The postcommunist transition had an impact on average height—a common measure of developmental stress—analogous to being in a conflict zone.) We had keynote addresses by Matt Jackson (“New Developments in Network Economics”), Duncan Watts (“Computational Social Science: Exciting Progress and Future Challenges?”), and last year’s Nobel Prize winners in economics, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström (“Assets, Contracts, and Organizations—Past, Present and Future”).

My own panel was SIOE in microcosm. Organized by Dean Lueck of Indiana’s Ostrom Workshop, we had four papers, spanning two disciplines, on governance and institutions. I presented work on “oligarch networks” in Ukraine with my longtime collaborator John Earle, Anton Shirikov (an outstanding Ph.D. student in political science at UW), and Solomiya Shpak (an equally outstanding Ph.D. student in public policy at George Mason). We are interested in how powerful businessmen in countries with weak institutions balance the desire to obscure ownership in key enterprises (the better to protect them from competitors and the state) with the need to maintain control over those assets. Ukraine is a rich setting in which to explore this question, with an abundance of both oligarchs and data.

I was joined on the panel by my UW colleague Nick Parker, who is exploring the impact of the fracking boom on an increasingly scarce resource: fine-grained silica sand. It turns out that Wisconsin is home to much of the sand used in the industry, and all of that extraction—and the associated transportation of sand by truck along rural roads—has led to battles with local regulators. Gustavo Torrens of Indiana followed with a revisionary look at the American Revolution. If the American demand was no taxation without representation, he asks, why not grant representation to avoid war? The answer lies in British politics—moving the political locus of the revolution from the New World to the Old. Finally, Werner Troesken of Pittsburgh discussed the origins of municipal-segregation laws in the early twentieth century in the American South. Contra the conventional understanding that increased housing demand by African Americans was responsible for such laws, Werner argues that it was the inability of whites to enforce segregation through vigilantism that motivated city councils to pass discriminatory ordinances.

A bit of this, a bit of that—but we’re all studying institutions and organizations. Sound like a good conference? Mark your calendar for next year’s meeting: June 22–24 in Montreal.

This article first appeared on Scott Gehlbach's blog.