Second Year Update

I was much more successful at keeping you all in the loop about first year stuff. That's a big year in an econ PhD, so it's maybe natural to be more conscious of everything going on. As with any "first year," it is also a confusing time. You don't know how everything works and you're just trying to get by.

Second year is much more... routine. I taught a course on Micro 101 last fall, which I'm teaching again this spring. That's slightly new, but not that much of a change from being a TA. Courses that I'm taking are like courses from last year. Not a lot of the changes from first to second year are overly stressful.

So that's my long justification for not blogging more about second year. It's mundane...

But since this is my blog and I can be as self-indulgent as I want (and because a few relatives actually care), I figured I give an update of what is going on for me as I'm about to start the spring semester.

Like last year, two big things on my plate right now are courses and teaching. However, courses are a smaller role than during first year. While I need to pass two "field" exams in the spring (monetary and public economics), courses aren't overly burdensome. (I probably should have focused on coursework more last semester...) They can be 100% of your focus, if people want them to be, but they don't have to be. First year courses have to be your main focus.

So I don't have a lot of courses that I worry about and I only teach once a week... What do I do with my time in the second year? That's a great question and I'm not quite sure. I guess the answer is "research," whatever that means, trying to come up with something original. It's not easy.

I'm in the transition stage, learning how to produce independent research. It's a completely different struggle than anything I've done before, but it's also a lot of fun. There is lots of freedom to explore ideas that I want, compared to classes. I appreciate that every day.

I get to wake up and read papers that interest me. That's pretty neat.

I won't claim to know what it means to do research. I certainly haven't figured it out. But the approximation that I'm working with for me involves reading, writing, staring at a whiteboard full of equations, and occasionally looking through data. I probably put too much time into the reading part, but it's a lot more fun than staring at the whiteboard all day and making no progress.

Since theory interests me more than empirical work, my "hard work" involves the same stuff as Raj and Sheldon.

Unfortunately, the past semester of research has ended up in more circles and dead-ends than actual progress and insights. I feel like my research ideas completely change every week. I've learned a lot about what I don't want to do and what doesn't make any sense. It's a confusing process... But we will see if any of it turns out.

Things I'm Working On (And Excited About)

Friends and family often ask what I'm working on, so let me try to explain:

  • A large part of my semester was spent working on a project about inequality and coordination, using something called global games. I'm looking at how inequality changes the ability of people to work together on projects, say a large investment. Imagine there are two types of people, rich and poor. If those groups are very very different from one another, they might have a hard time working together and coordinating. I need to do more data work and expand the model, but my simple model matches some simple empirical aspects. We will see where it goes, but it has been a fun project to start on.
  • The most progress I've made is on a paper about entrepreneurship and coordination. I have an early, early, early.... early draft up if you want to check it out. In it, I'm thinking through the relationship between coordination (a recurring theme for me) and entrepreneurship. If people need to coordinate their actions, such as buyers and sellers going to a farmer's market together, there can be trouble. If everyone believes that everyone is staying home, then staying home is self-fulfilling and is the outcome. In the paper, I look at how entrepreneurs can help avoid this problem. If economists look at the bigger picture, with the entrepreneur involved, the image changes. Let me know what you think. I'm presenting this at a conference in the spring.
  • The most frustrating project has been a paper I'm trying to write on interpreting optimal taxation papers. I'm trying to formulate a way of talking about optimal taxation without being purely about normative policy recommendations. To do that, I have to figure out how everyone else is talking about optimal taxation. The problem is that no one articulates what they mean when they have a result that says "optimal taxes are increasing..." How are we to interpret such statements? No one can tell me what those papers mean, so I don't know how to formulate my counter. In fact, it's odd to be thinking about a counter when you don't know what you're actually countering... I'm also presenting this, if I ever get my argument together.
  • My most recent project is looking what it means to do "optimal taxation," if the government is not perfect. If the government doesn't perfectly maximize the utility of it's citizens, what can we say about their own desired tax system? To do that, I'm building a model that combines regular optimal taxation, where the government wants to help people out as much as possible, and a monopolist model, where the government wants to get as much as possible and reach the top of the Laffer curve. I'm thinking that reality has governments somewhere between perfectly benevolent and perfectly malevolent. Maybe this model can generate some insights.

Don't ask me if I'm working on the same things next month. They might completely change. I'd love to hear if people have any ideas about these projects, based on an admittedly short and confusing summary.

But, that's what my life is now in second year, if anyone is interested. I'm doing less coursework than most classmates, so I need to replace that time with other stuff: trying to make sense of these four projects and not go insane.

Wish me luck!