While D.C. basked in the first convincing evidence that Spring will soon take hold, a group of Congressional staffers crunched through repeated dustings of snow on their way to classes in Aspen, Colorado. The staffers were few in number but decidedly well-placed and bipartisan, representing key committees and offices in both the House and Senate. They had agreed to devote part of their Easter recess to participate in the Federal Institute for Regulatory Law & Economics, hosted at the famed Aspen Institute. The Federal Institute was modeled after a similar program for state regulators that PFF launched successfully last year, in conjunction with our academic partners at the University of Colorado's Silicon Flatirons Telecommunications Program and George Mason University's Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science.
The Federal Institute differs from PFF's usual think-tank activities (i.e., research and writing on specific policy issues in an effort to persuade policymakers). It is a "mini-university" designed to help Congressional staffers develop analytical tools that they can use to make up their own minds regarding policies in industries significantly affected by regulation (e.g., communications, electricity and intellectual property). The conference last weekend was no ski junket; it was rigorous, but fun. Each session involved lively discussions on essential economic and technology concepts, supplemented by readings that constitute "classics" in these areas. Attendees considered both the theory and reality of regulation. They explored the importance of assessing technology and market developments, of understanding property rights and liabilities, and of recognizing political and institutional limitations.
But this first Aspen conference for the Federal Institute accomplished much more, at least for me personally. I owe a great deal to the attendees for opening my eyes to how these analytical principles can be applied outside the communications and information technology sectors with which I am most familiar. More importantly, they renewed my faith that substantive rigor can play an important role in the legislative process, at least with respect to public servants this dedicated. And clearly the staffers appreciated the experience, one stating: "I enjoyed this more than any trip I have done in 10 years on the Hill."
Best of all, there is more to come with the Federal Institute, with a visit to George Mason's experimental economics lab in early May, as well as other events in DC and at the Aspen Institute. For more information on the program, please see the program's website.