There is no shortage of ideas in the Economics Department of George Mason University. In fact, our economists are extremely hard to keep up with. In addition to teaching, which is a big part of being on the faculty, professors have academic responsibilities that include publishing their scholarship, administrative duties such as running centers, and committee work. But for the Mason economists, the work day doesn’t stop there.
The Mason Economics Department is home to 12 bloggers and one syndicated columnist, Walter Williams. This busy bunch keeps the Internet and media buzzing with their latest ideas and opinions. In recent years, Mason economists have tackled topics from pirates, as Peter Leeson did in his book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, to space colonization, which Robin Hanson discussed in an online article.
Mason also enjoys the distinction of being one of the few universities with two Nobel laureates in economics. When James Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1986 for his work on public choice theory, it helped to put the quiet suburban university on the map, attracting many graduate students who hoped to study with him. In 2002, the Economics Department and the university were in the limelight again when Vernon Smith was awarded the same prize for his pioneering work in experimental economics. Although both men have retired from Mason and hold emeritus faculty status with the university, their legacy continues through the economists who carry on, such as the five featured here.
Russ Roberts is known for bringing economics to the creative arts, so people shouldn’t be surprised that he would dabble in music. He is after all a novelist with three books to his credit—The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity, The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance, and The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism—and has a huge desire to share his passion for economics.
“I’m interested in helping people understand how the world works,” says Roberts, who is the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Distinguished Scholar at Mason’s Mercatus Center and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Economics is a powerful lens for looking at the world.”
And what could be more powerful and provocative than rap music? Earlier this year, Roberts and filmmaker John Papola produced and wrote the lyrics for a rap music video titled “Fear the Boom and Bust,” which features two actors portraying the great economists of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek, who come back to life to attend an economics conference.
Since its January 2010 debut in a number of media outlets including NPR, the video has more than 1.5 million views on YouTube and at least 10 subtitled versions in languages from Chinese to Estonian. It has already won an award, a Sammy, from the Sam Adams Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to free market activism.
“It was a crazy idea because neither of us had written a rap song before,” says Roberts, who is already collaborating on another video with Papola. “But it turns out John is a very good rapper. The best rhymes are his.”
It’s not all fun and games though. Roberts is serious about educating people. A web page of educational resources for people who want to learn more about Hayek and Keynes accompanies the video.
“Not everyone wants to major in economics or study it formally,” he says, “but there’s a huge demand for understanding economics, especially using nontraditional media.”
For Kevin McCabe, economics is a matter of trust. Trust, or what he sometimes calls the trust paradigm, has been at the root of his economic experiments for the past decade.
McCabe, who is director of the Center for Study of Neuroeconomics, came to Mason from the University of Arizona as part of Vernon Smith’s research group. It was at Arizona that the first trust experiments and the idea of neuroeconomics began.
“We were looking at individual behavior and realized there wasn’t a really good [scientific] model for it,” he says. The research led McCabe and his colleagues to explore evolutionary and cognitive psychology and then to cognitive and social neuroscience.
“In exploring, we realized that this whole new field was starting to get at the biological foundations of human cognition,” McCabe says. “It became obvious that if we were going to build a scientific model of the economic behavior of individuals, it would need to be based on the same biological model that neuroscientists were exploring.”
And the field of neuroeconomics was born.
McCabe’s group maintains a laboratory at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study and shares a prospective pool of almost 1,000 research subjects, mostly undergraduates, with the Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science, where he is on the faculty.
The experiments have cash incentives, and the subjects interact in a virtual environment using avatars. Simply put, a research subject can “earn” more money if he or she is willing to trust the other subject. They also conduct similar experiments using the magnetic resonance imaging scanner at Krasnow.
“We think this is the kind of social dilemma people face in their lives all the time,” says McCabe, who has been publishing research about the trust paradigm since 2001.
“We want to understand how people behave not just in trust relationships, but in strategic relationships and noncooperative relationships, as well.”
People want to talk to Tyler Cowen, BS Economics ’83, about food. A recent Washington Post story profiling Cowen illustrated how he is often approached by people who want to know where he went for dinner. The truth is you don’t need to ask. If Cowen went someplace new for dinner, it will be reviewed (good or bad) online pretty quickly in Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide. Cowen has a following for this website, just as he does for Marginal Revolution, the blog he maintains with Mason economist and colleague Alex Tabarrok.
Known for his work in the overlap of economics and culture, Cowen has written more than 10 books on a variety of topics from The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy, which came out this summer, to What Price Fame?, a meditation on the economics of our fame-driven culture. Some of his more recent publications, such as Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist, focus on what Cowen calls the economics of daily life. He has theories about everything from getting children to do chores (“They figure if they earn a lot, in the long run, you will give them less aid.”) to interacting with your dentist (“You want to trust him because you feel nervous, but actually you should think of him like a used car salesman.”), and of course dining out. The economics of food just happens to be the topic of his next book.
One of Cowen’s favorite restaurants is the China Star in Fairfax, where he orders from the special Chinese menu inside the traditional menu. On this particular day, he gets his favorite dish, mapo tofu, a combination of tofu, ground pork, and chili peppers. The staff knows him there. Cowen has a knack for finding good eats in the most unassuming places such as strip shopping malls, which ties into his theories.
“Because they don’t have as high an overhead, they are more likely to be innovative and try new things,” he says of small restaurants.
Sichuan is one of Cowen’s favorite kinds of food, although his dining guide covers just about anything. He even had a special post on how to eat well in Berlin, where Cowen taught for six weeks this summer. Despite his love for Sichuan delicacies, Cowen doesn’t often travel to China these days.
“They censor my blog there,” he says.
Bryan Caplan has made a name for himself with his thoughts of American voters and politics, but if you are looking forward to his thoughts on the 2012 presidential season, you may be a little disappointed. Caplan does have a new book coming out in 2011, but it’s about, well, family planning. Titled Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun than You Think, the book has a planned release date of Mother’s Day.
How did the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, named the best political book of 2007 by the New York Times, get started writing about behavioral genetics? By blogging.
“Blogging opens more research channels,” says Caplan. “It is great to be able to bypass boring journals where people are just talking to each other and to have an outlet for ideas that don’t fit into a traditional academic format.”
Caplan says he has been interested in behavioral genetics, which is basically the study of twins and adoption, for a number of years. Caplan is also the father of three, including a pair of identical twins who are now seven, which spurred his curiosity.
“People have been arguing about nature versus nurture for centuries,” Caplan says. “Over the past few decades, twin and adoption researchers have finally discovered credible answers, and their punch line surprises people.”
The punch line, according to Caplan, is that in the long run almost all similarities within the family are due to heredity.
“People in this field approach it as pure researchers. They don’t think: What does this mean for the world?” he says. “But as an economist, I look at this and think, ‘Wait a second, this has major implications for behavior.’ What this says is that parents can give themselves a big break without endangering their children’s futures.” The book builds on this “punch line” epiphany, and Caplan has lots of data from which to draw.
Despite his work on the book, Caplan still finds time to blog about political and other topics at Econlog, the blog of the Library of Economics and Liberty.
“Blogging has really helped make economics truly interdisciplinary,” Caplan says. “It is a place where you can really bring together a lot of different ideas and still call it research. I’m very excited about that.”
Economists in experimental economics all seem to tell a similar tale. The stories involve a first contact with the field that changes everything for the future economist. For Ragan Petrie of the Interdisciplinary Center for Economic Science (ICES), it was a class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“A classmate suggested I take this [experimental economics] course with Jim Andreoni. I went the first day and was completely hooked,” says Petrie. “The methods of experimental economics have allowed me to answer many of the research questions I have bouncing around in my head.”
To answer those questions, Ragan mixes laboratory and field experiments. Her interests range from beauty and gender to bargaining and crime. Most recently, her research has taken her outside the lab and the country.
Working on a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Petrie traveled with ICES colleague Marco Castillo, to Lima, Peru, where the two are helping farmers gain better access to export markets. They are working with tropical fruit-exporting companies to design and explore alternative contractual forms that encourage farmers to produce higher quality and more profitable produce.
Her other projects in Peru examine gender differences in bargaining for a taxi and strategic crime in the postal system. She also spent time this summer in China, looking at the impact of urban design and architecture on social interactions.
In addition to her work at ICES, Petrie also teaches Mason’s version of the course that changed her career—Experimental Economics—and it is proving to be popular. “Enrollment has more than doubled for this fall,” she says.