With immediate effect, Grégory Ponthière (UCLouvain) joins the group of Editors of the Journal of Population Economics. He will work with Editors Shuaizhang Feng (Jinan University), Oded Galor (Brown University), Terra McKinnish (University of Colorado Boulder), Editor-in-Chief Klaus F. Zimmermann (UNU-MERIT) and with Managing Editors Michaella Vanore (UNU-MERIT) and Madeline Zavodny (University of North Florida).
Interview with Grégory Ponthière
GLO: What brought you to population economics?
Grégory Ponthière: As a Ph.D. student in Economics in Cambridge in the early 2000s, I became interested in the measurement of human welfare across long periods of time. From that perspective, variations in survival conditions play a fundamental role, since the finiteness of life is a major cause of scarcity and deprivation for humans. This definitely oriented my research at the intersection of economic theory and demography.
GLO: Why can micro theory help us to understand demographic processes?
Grégory Ponthière: Demographic outcomes (fertility, mortality, migration) are influenced by economic factors, in particular individual endowments in terms of physical or human capital, and also by prices faced by individuals (e.g. the wage rate, housing prices). Thus demographic processes cannot be understood without considering the economic conditions under which they take place. This makes the microeconomic analysis of demographic trends fundamental: focusing on microeconomic foundations allows us to identify conditions under which existing population trends can be rationalized or explained. But I would go even further, and defend the view that most economic processes – in particular accumulation mechanisms and dynamics – cannot be understood without considering demography. Economic and demographic outcomes are joint products, and this makes population economics a central field of economic analysis.
GLO: Explain us your field of specialization!
Grégory Ponthière: My research lies at the intersection of economic theory and demography. It focuses, from a theoretical perspective, on multidirectional relations between economic variables and demographic outcomes. I published several papers on the economic rationalization of mortality variations (within a population at a given period and across long periods of time), and also on the microeconomic study of the timing of births (in particular the advancement of births in the early 20th century, followed by a postponement of births starting in the 1970s). Besides those positive studies, my research also examined the design of optimal public policies when demographic outcomes are endogenously determined within the economy, and depend on material living conditions faced by individuals. Those normative studies involved the design of prevention policies, pensions, long term care social insurance, family policies (in particular family allowances) and fiscal policies (the taxation of savings and bequests).
GLO: What excites you most in your current research?
Grégory Ponthière: My current research focuses on the construction of a fair Welfare State, and on the normative foundations behind public policies. Since the pioneer works of Bentham and Mill, there is a long tradition, in Economics, which adopts utilitarianism as an ethical benchmark (the principle of “the largest happiness for the largest number”). My current research aims at identifying the unattractive implications of utilitarianism in the context where the population is heterogeneous on important dimensions (e.g. the genetic background determining longevity outcomes or the natural fecundity of individuals), and proposes to rethink the design of the Welfare State while adopting alternative normative foundations, which lay a stronger emphasis on equalizing welfare across individuals (either in ex ante terms or in ex post terms). Taking unequal demographic outcomes into account – beyond the mere “representative agent” – does not leave the design of the Welfare State unchanged.
GLO: Why have you accepted to take the Editor position?
Grégory Ponthière: I have been doing research in population economics since the beginning of my Ph.D. thesis, almost 20 years ago. Thus I have a long-lasting interest in that field of economic research. During that period, my research has greatly benefited from the (indirect) supervision of editors of journals, and also from the work of a large number of anonymous reviewers. It is time for me to contribute to the public good, by participating more actively to the life of scientific journals, not only as an author or as a reviewer, but also as an editor. Joining the Editorial team of the Journal of Population Economics is a unique opportunity to contribute actively to the flourishing of that exciting area of research.
GLO: Where do you see promising fields for population theory the Journal could explore?
Grégory Ponthière: At the micro level, I can see two promising areas of research, which are quite complementary. The first one concerns the modelling of the human life cycle, which faces serious limitations when considering basic decisions (e.g. the long term care insurance puzzle). In particular, the inclusion, within the lifecycle model, of the risk about the duration of life is challenging. A second – related – field concerns the modelling of the interests of economic agents at the two extremities of life: childhood and old-age dependency. Public policies should take the interests of the very young and of the very old into account, but the problem is that those individuals may not have well-defined preferences in the same way as adults can have. The microeconomic analysis of the family thus still faces major challenges, and those challenges are also relevant for the macroeconomic study of demographic trends. Finally, another fundamental challenge for population economics concerns the design of the Welfare State when demographic variables react to public policies, i.e. abstracting from the usual “ceteris paribus” assumption. This last point is most relevant in the context of the corona crisis.
GLO: Will the coronavirus change the world of academic publishing?
Grégory Ponthière: It is too early to know what will be the long-run consequences of coronavirus on the society, and on the world of science in particular. But one thing is certain: the corona crisis does not only affect health and mortality outcomes around the world, but it also deteriorates teaching and learning conditions in all universities. As such, this deteriorates the foundations of science in the future.
With Editor and GLO Fellow Grégory Ponthière spoke Klaus F. Zimmermann, GLO President & Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Population Economics.
GLO Fellow Gregory Ponthiere is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at the Hoover Chair in Economic and Social Ethics, UCLouvain, and an Editor of the Journal of Population Economics. Before joining UCLouvain, he held permanent positions at the Ecole Normale Superieure and at the University Paris XII, and was an Associate Researcher at the Paris School of Economics. His research focuses on relations between economic and demographic outcomes, from a positive perspective (rationalization of stylized facts) and a normative perspective (design of a fair Welfare State). His publications include three books and articles in journals such as the Journal of Economic Theory, the International Economic Review, Social Choice and Welfare and the Journal of Public Economics. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France.
Editor-in-Chief & Managing Editors