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The revival of the European June conference season – overcoming Covid and Putin

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | July 11, 2022

Vilnius

I am used to traveling in the summer to a conference in Ravello, visiting Israel, or participating in the European Environmental and Resource Economics Association (EAERE) meetings. Unfortunately, the pandemic stopped this tradition, and zooming is a poor substitute for in-person meetings. This year the June conference season is on again, and I discuss two events I participated in – a meeting in Vilnius and another in Rimini.

The Vilnius meeting

My friend, Professor Avishay Braverman, invited me to a meeting in Vilnius, focusing on the economics of Lithuania. My mother’s family arrived in Jerusalem from Vilnius about 200 years ago. They were the students and descendants of a famous scholar Rabbi Eliyahu, and this trip was a “roots” tour. Indeed, there is a statue and a street named after Eliyahu in Vilnius. The Jewish community of Lithuania has mostly disappeared, but it was surprising to see that it is remembered and respected.

Vilnius is becoming a modern city with fine restaurants and fashionable stores. Still, its old town with beautiful university buildings and its collection of art and book is a jewel. The past of Lithuania left bitter memories, but now the Lithuanians are free; they gained their independence after the fall of the iron curtain and are committed to preventing recapture by Putin. The support for Ukraine is apparent. The Lithuanians are proud that they made investments that allowed them to obtain liquid natural gas and be independent of Russian gas.

RootsThe Lithuanian economy has growing information technology and biotech sectors. Still, I was surprised by the lack of support for high education and research, reflected in the low pay for teachers and a modest budget for universities. While some of the most exciting companies originated at universities, they are starving for cash. Before Brexit, the Lithuanian elite sent their children to England. Now they are looking for an alternative destination in an EU country, and the Netherlands is likely to attract many students. Still, the rest of the population has sent their children to local schools, and their performance was modest relative to other European countries. Some business leaders want low taxes and minimal government intervention in the economy. I think that they, like many others, got the wrong lessons from the history of America, that the recipe for success is low taxes and regulations, and the capitalistic spirit will take care of everything. I disagree; investment in infrastructure and education by the public sector and enlightened individuals have contributed to making America great. I perceive America to have two economies- states with a “capitalist spirit,” which impose minimal taxes, make small investments in public goods, and have a relatively lower rate of innovation, income per capita, and life expectancy compared to advanced Western countries. Other states may have people complaining about taxation but have invested in public goods and have leading universities and world-beating companies. So, investing in education and other public goods can enhance and sustain prosperity in Lithuania. I was familiar with Lithuania because of its excellence in basketball, mainly since Sarunas Marciulionis, who orchestrated the effort that led to the 1992 bronze medal in Barcelona, played for the Golden State Warriors. I understand that the country invested in building human capital in sports, and the players contributed time and resources for the public good, and they triumphed.

OceanWe plan a workshop in Vilnius; we may emphasize the importance of investment in human capabilities, the need for leadership that pursues public service, and the importance of a law-based capitalistic system with science-based regulations. The design of appropriate regulations was an issue that attracted me to the EAERE meeting in Rimini.

The Rimini Meeting

Everyone knows that I love Italy. I love to explore new places and get exposed to the food and the culture. Therefore, I am glad that the meeting was in the coastal city of Rimini, where the weather was tolerable while the interior of Italy was boiling. Since we are concerned about climate change, it makes sense to consider the weather in selecting the conference’s location. Besides, I have enjoyed the sea all my life and visiting a famous beach town was delightful.

I like the European Environmental-Economic group because of the diversity of people and the approaches they apply. There is less emphasis on econometrics than in the US and more on theory and simulation. The keynote by Partha Dasgupta was inspiring — his dream to include changes in natural resource stocks as part of the measure of national wealth is becoming a reality. Cathy Kling’s talk on the challenges of solving water quality problems emphasized the importance of collaborating with other disciplines to make a difference. Much of the meeting was devoted to the European initiatives to establish a coordinated global effort to solve climate change. While the excellent policy analyses emphasized the various mechanisms to address climate change, there was minimal discussion about the capabilities of emerging decarbonization technologies. I am a big fan of solar energy and wind power. I believe in the potential of electric cars, but these technologies can only go so far. E-vehicles may dominate the consumer car market in the developed world within 30 years, but their capacity with trucks and airplanes is limited. Hydrogen is considered one alternative, but it is slow to materialize. It requires low-cost green hydrogen production, safe hydrogen transport, and hydrogen-using vehicles. While currently, hydrogen technology is costly, scientists believe that with R&D, it will be available within 20 years. Yet biotechnologies are available now, have great potential, and are over-regulated and underutilized. The EU regulations have limited the adoption of GMOs and CRISPR in agriculture – but despite crippling regulation, the few traits of GMOs allowed increased yields and reduced chemical use. Biofuels are competitive now, and their costs are decreasing because of learning-by-doing. The new capabilities of modern biotechnologies can also improve the sequestration of carbon, improve plant-based meats, and save land and water once regulations, especially in Europe and the countries it influences, give these technologies the go-ahead. If agricultural biotechnologies had been encouraged in Europe 10 years ago, we wouldn’t worry about food vs. fuel. We could have produced sufficient biofuel and grain to release some of the pressures imposed by the war in Ukraine.

Conclusions

I enjoyed being on the road again- visiting new places, encountering new ideas- and pitching my views. This touring is the gift and obligation of being an academic. Sharing perspectives and exchanging ideas- may lead us to practical solutions to common global problems.

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