Allied Social Science Annual Meeting, January 6-8, 2017

By Kalpana Khanal, PhD

During the first weekend of January I had the opportunity to attend and present at Allied Social Science Association’s (ASSA) annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois. ASSA is one of the most important and premiere events to expose your work to colleagues and hear about the latest research in the field of economics. Economists from around the world take advantage of this unique opportunity to share, collaborate, and learn from each other. This year over 13,300 economists were assembled to network and celebrate new achievements in economic research.

I was especially excited about the conference because my paper was accepted for presentation at the Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE) session for the first time. AFEE is an international organization of economists and other social scientists devoted to analysis of economics as evolving, socially constructed and politically governed systems. The intellectual heritage of AFEE is that of the Original Institutional Economics (OIE) created and developed by early twentieth-century economists such as Thorstein Veblen, John R. Commons, and Wesley Mitchell. In recent decades, this legacy has evolved to address contemporary issues such as:

  • The role of diverse cultures in economic performance
  • Domestic and international inequalities of income
  • The roles of social, economic and political power in shaping economic outcomes
  • Globalization and the increasing weight of multinational corporations in the international economy
  • The need for expanding use of modern technologies to relieve want
  • The urgent need for awareness of the impact of new technology on the biosphere
  • The ways in which economic thought is affected by and affects always-changing economics

This year’s theme was, “The Vested Interests and the Common People: Power, Policy and Institutions in the 21st Century,” taking its cue from Veblen’s 1920 essay, “The Vested Interests and the Common Man.” In it, he argues, the ownership of property in large holdings now controls the nation’s industry, and therefore it controls the conditions of life for those who are or who wish to be engaged in industry; at the same time, the same ownership of large wealth controls the markets and thereby controls the conditions of life for those who have to resort to the markets to sell or to buy (Thorstein, Veblen, The Vested Interests and the Common Man, 1920, pp. 159-160). He goes on to refer to, “massive interests that move obscurely in the background of the market”, while for the common man, “[a] pious regard for the received code of right and honest living holds him to a submissive quietism, a make-believe of self-help and fair dealings”

In 2016, Veblen’s ideas are still relevant as the global economy continues to face similar issues. In the aftermath of the great recession, income inequality has gone up. The concentration of wealth and power in the last decade has reached levels not seen in almost a century. The financialization of the economy and of politics also limits the ability of common people to make any change for themselves and for society. In this conference, different panels were put together to answer some of the questions below:

  • To what extent can effective policies and robust civil society institutions counter the power of the vested interests?
  • What are the main problems besieging, not only today’s common man, but also today’s work force in all of its diversity?
  • In short, what are the most profound problems facing the modern globalized economy and how can institutional economics contribute to resolving these problems?

presentationThe scholars in my panel tried to extend the notion of vested interests to developing economies. It was a privilege, as a junior faculty, to be in this panel with experts in the field of international economics. The tile of the paper I presented is “Extending the Notion of Vested Interest to International Relations between Nepal-India.” The motivation for this paper comes from a trade embargo imposed by India on Nepal in the aftermath of massive earthquake that occurred in April 2011.

One interesting fact that came to my attention during the embargo was that, it was not the first of its kind. I sensed that there must be some role of “vested interests” both on the Nepali side and Indian side, which systematically caused embargoes to happen time and again. The main objective of my paper is to identify and analyze various “vested interests” within Nepal and India in economic, political and natural resource spheres. The first section of my paper provides a historical context to India-Nepal diplomatic relations. The second section sheds some light on the role of vested interests in various spheres of Nepal and India’s international relationship. The third section offers some new directions both countries should consider to break the vicious cycle of mistrust and to resolve existing disputes between the two countries.

DespainDuring the conference, I also had an opportunity to attend my colleague Hans Despain’s panel discussion session. It was a joint session organized by Union of Radical Political Economics and American Economic Association. Professor Despain was in the same panel with some well-known names in economics field. Among others, Anwar Shaikh (New School), William Lazonick (UMass-Lowell), Deirdre McCloskey (University of Illinois-Chicago), Larry Summers (Harvard economics professor and former treasury secretary), and Bradford Delong (UC Berkeley) were in the panel.

In this panel, Professor Despain did an amazing job presenting his seminal work on secular stagnation. Highlighting the main underpinnings of Monopoly-finance capital theory, he discussed how this approach is a far more advantageous theoretical position than Mainstream Ideas of Secular Stagnation Theory in terms of explaining the dysfunctions of social development.

henry2I also had an opportunity to attend a luncheon in honor of one of my dissertation advisors, professor John F. Henry, for receiving the Veblen-Commons Award. It is an award given in recognition of the contributions made by an outstanding scholar in the field of evolutionary institutional economics. Some of the past recipients include Gunnar Myrdal (1975), John K. Galbraith (1976), and Robert Heilbroner (1994).

Additionally, I was privileged to speak with Bucknell University professor Geoff Schneider in person. He is a director of the Learning Center at Bucknell, where he helps new faculty members begin their Bucknell careers. He shared his insights and pedagogical approach related to how to get students into group discussions that are rich, how to punctuate your lectures with thought-provoking questions, and how to do things that will keep your students actively engaged in the course material.

Overall, the conference was very beneficial and provided multiple opportunities. First, I was able to present my research and get feedback from experts in the field. Second, I was able to attend several presentations and panel discussions in the areas of my teaching and research interests. Third, I was able to network with scholars who shared their insights both on research and teaching. I feel motivated to start the New Year with a passion to grow as a teaching and research scholar.

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