I have left Prague via train to come to Bratislava, where tonight I will give a public lecture on "Why Are Some Nations Rich and Others Poor?" On Wednesday I will speak at the Technical University in Kosice.
I haven't traveled to this region of the world since the early part of the decade (the year after the Prague flood was my last visit to Prague), so it is fascinating for me to compare and contrast the subsequent developments both in terms of intellectual infrastructure, and of course economic life and business development.
I have always been drawn to what I have termed the political economy of everyday life, which is a research program that attempts to get at the implicit rules that govern social intercourse outside the sphere of state control or even state view. This research program tries to triangulate the data analysis with use of traditional economic measures, historical treatments of culture, institutions, and policy, and economic anthropology/ethnography. This had led in the early period of transition to interviews with key policy makers and emerging entrepreneurs, to discussions a decade into the transition with traders and brokers, and even discussions with various individuals that exist at the edge of legitimate society about the mechanisms of self-ordering. I did not do any research on this trip, but simply tried to observe and absorb what is what.
An example of this style of work is the field work that was done by James Tooley and his team on private schooling throughout the developing world. But I have often tried to get the graduate students working with me at GMU to really embrace this idea --- to only various degrees of success. There are a variety of reasons why I think that is so: a risk/reward calculation professionally is perhaps the major issue, but the necessary preparation for conducting such a study is another (language skills which is a major stumbling block for myself is also for others). To really do this well, an economist must not only have a toleration for reading anthropology and ethnography work that most economists by temperament just do not possess, but they also have to invest in the relevant skill set or try to cooperate with others to fill in the gaps. And the relative expense of such research projects is another. The first stage is a "soak and poke" stage of simply absorbing the situation and learning what might be the right questions to even ask without even asking any questions. And finally the curiosity to want to see the hidden reality of economic life of a culture different from your own is a rarer intellectual characteristic than I originally thought it was among those who are attracted to economics as a discipline. We economists do have a penchant for parsimony (rightfully so), and with that goes a desire for "thin" description and "clean" empirical work. The area studies scholars one must read and work with to do an ethnography of economic life have a penchant for "thick" description and "dirty" empirical work. So how does one conduct a rational choice analysis of the messy world of political economy of everyday life?
Despite the high costs of such an exercise I still think work along these lines can transform the way economists think about social order and institutional analysis. Though after not traveling in a region for close to a decade, I return to the "soak and poke" phase. I cannot even imagine how I would think of a research project along these lines in Russia these days, as I imagine I would need to scape the thoughts I had from my notes during my stay at The Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in the 1990s. But it would be fascinating for me to see how that society has been transformed in the intervening years.
In the meantime, I am trying to soak up the environment and talk to economists, students and policy makers about the more general points that economic science teaches us. In short, I am mainly talking here in Bratislava and Kosice about "thin" description and "clean" empirical work done by economists and the implications for the big policy questions of our age.