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Building an Economic Powerhouse

For more than 30 years, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has bridged the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems by connecting academic research to public policy. In addition to producing cutting-edge economics research, Mercatus has always had student education at its core and today is the largest supporter of graduate students at George Mason.

Economics graduate students at work at the Mercatus Center on the Arlington Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn. [1]

Economics graduate students at work at the Mercatus Center on the Arlington Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

In 2014, Mercatus supported more than 90 graduate students. Students graduating this year with master’s and doctoral degrees in economics will join the 119 Mason PhD graduates and 26 MA graduates who have been supported by the center to date.

Fellowship Support

A number of fellowship programs support those wanting to study economics. Students in the Mercatus MA Fellowship are typically pursuing advanced degrees in economics with the goal of applying economics in their careers. Fellows work side by side with Mercatus scholars to develop analytical skills that lead to careers in public policy. Graduates from the program have gone on to become Presidential Management Fellows, economists in state and federal governments, and policy analysts at other prominent research institutions.

MA Fellows are expected to pursue policy internships during the summer between their first and second years so that they can apply the skills obtained in their first year to real-world policy situations. Fellow Ian Robinson, MA ’14, worked with the Export-Import Bank of the United States as a Summer Associate for Transportation Lending, which gave him a better understanding of how banks make commercial lending decisions.

“The fellowship helped me have a more discerning and nuanced perspective about the work I did [at the bank],” says Robinson.

Another program designed to support doctoral students is the JIN Fellowship created by Mercatus founder and benefactor Richard Fink. Jayme Lemke, MA ’11, PhD ’13, completed her PhD in economics with the support of a two-year JIN Fellowship.

“There are precious few places like this in the world,” says Lemke, “and it’s highly unlikely that I would have chosen to become an economist at all if it wasn’t for the academic and financial support of Mercatus.”

Lemke’s dissertation, “The Political Economy of Gender Disparity in Law,” analyzed the evolution of the legal institutions that governed the lives of women living in the early American and British common law legal systems. She currently finished her postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University’s Political Theory Project, where she continued her research on the economic drivers behind the progress of women’s legal rights. She will be starting at Utah State this fall.

Beyond the support Mercatus provides, three things make the Mercatus fellowship programs exceptional: the interdisciplinary approach to economics, the high value placed on teaching, and the rigorous approach to scholarship relevant to the real world.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

Mason economics professor Peter Boettke, MA ’87, PhD ’89, is following in the footsteps of Fink, his former teacher, by supporting economists intent on grappling with difficult problems and producing research that broadens our knowledge of how markets work.

Friedrich Hayek, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, said, “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist.”

With that in mind, Boettke established the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics to foster teaching and research on the institutional arrangements that are suitable for the support of free and prosperous societies. The program integrates the study of economics with law, political science, philosophy, and history so that graduates emerge with the ability to research and explain the world around them.

Abby Hall, a JIN Fellow in Economics at the Mercatus Center, teaches an economics class at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn. [2]

Abby Hall, a JIN Fellow in Economics at the Mercatus Center, teaches a microeconomics class at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The Mercatus Adam Smith Fellowship also brings graduate students attending PhD programs at other universities in a variety of fields including economics, philosophy, political science, and sociology to Mason to introduce them to thinkers in political economy that they might not otherwise encounter during their graduate studies. Adam Smith Fellows spend three weekends during the academic year and one week during the summer in residence at Mason participating in workshops and seminars on the Austrian, Virginia, and Bloomington schools of political economy. The program started in 2012 with 15 students. Because of its popularity, it welcomed 40 students from 33 schools for the 2013‒14 academic year.

The Value of Teaching

Not only does the faculty mentor the PhD students associated with Mercatus, the students are encouraged to pursue research and presentation opportunities both inside and outside Mason, such as presenting at national conferences.

“Our graduate students have the opportunity to design and teach their own courses so that they develop and hone their skills as effective teachers and communicators of the economic way of thinking,” says Chris Coyne, PhD ’05, director of graduate programs for the Department of Economics. Coyne is a former fellow himself.

Doctoral student Abigail Hall, a 2013‒14 JIN Fellow, taught ECON 306 Intermediate Microeconomics this spring.

“It is my hope that my passion for economics and learning will help to engage students such that they cultivate their own passions, explore their curiosities, and learn to actively question and analyze the world around them,” says Hall, who wants to teach economics after completing her degree.

Hall graduated magna cum laude with a BA in economics and business administration from Bellarmine University in Kentucky before coming to Mason. Now in her third year of the program, Hall has already co-written four articles, given two presentations at academic conferences, and serves as a research assistant for Coyne in addition to teaching.

Relevant Research

The Mason commitment to creating a more just, free, and prosperous world is central to Mercatus’ support for students who want to apply their talents to the world’s most pressing problems.

During his time at Mason, Robinson has been working with Mercatus Senior Scholar Hester Peirce and Mason economics professor Thomas Stratmann on a comprehensive survey and analysis of the impact of Dodd-Frank Act on small, community banks. In addition to helping design the survey instrument, he compiled and analyzed the data, co-wrote the results, and presented the research.

After the fellowship, Robinson hopes to combine his economic research and analysis experience and his professional banking experience in a career in the financial services industry or policy.

Now, more than ever, economics and economists are helping us to understand the world around us, whether it be understanding the causes of the 2008 financial crisis or the effects of government policy on the economy.

Mason’s economics program is on the cutting edge of producing students whose research promises to make a difference to the well-being of people around the world for many years to come.

Sidebar: Building a Foundation

Ask students what made their college experience transcendent and they will point to that one professor who took an interest in them, academically and personally, and encouraged them to think deeply and apply that knowledge to improve the world around them.

Mercatus director Tyler Cowen (third from left) with founder Richard Fink (second from right) and his family. Photo courtesy of Mercatus Center. [3]

Mercatus director Tyler Cowen (third from left) with founder Richard Fink (second from right) and his family. Photo courtesy of Mercatus Center.

“Professor Richard Fink was instrumental in my early development as an economist,” says Mason economist Tyler Cowen, BS Economics ’83. “He taught me to think critically, to defend my assertions, and even went so far as to co-write my first article in American Economic Review while I was still an undergraduate.”

Fink’s commitment to students and building scholarship at Mason goes back to 1980 when he moved his Rutgers University Austrian Economics Program here. Fink established the Mercatus Center at Mason to educate and support students studying market processes and the institutions that promote sustainable prosperity and economic freedom.

Four Rutgers students followed Fink to Fairfax and became the original class of students supported by Mercatus. Cowen, who was one of those students, is now the Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics at Mason and chair of the Mercatus board.

Currently, Fink is an executive vice president and board member of Koch Industries. Before joining Koch in 1990, he was an economics professor and executive vice president of advancement and planning at Mason. He also served two terms on Mason’s Board of Visitors, the George Mason University Foundation Board of Trustees, and the advisory board of the Public Choice Center. Although he no longer teaches, Fink continues to sit on the board of directors of the Mercatus Center, which Charles Koch and he founded in 1978, and the Institute for Humane Studies, which he recruited to Mason in the early 1980s.

Says Fink, “We started the Mercatus Center because so much of economics was based on flawed theory and models that actually assumed away most of the interesting challenges people confronted in their real lives. Most schools were so focused on professional rankings that truly innovative, interdisciplinary, and relevant work was inadvertently discouraged.”

So what was the difference at Mason? “George Mason’s leaders, especially the presidents, fostered—and continue to foster—a culture of openness to diverse points of view and innovative ideas,” says Fink.

Fink and his wife, Mary, have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Mason students through their family foundation, the Richard and Mary Fink Family Trust. The trust established the JIN Fellowship named for their deceased parents Joseph and Ione Fink and Nick Yanuzzelli. Recently, the Fink family made an additional $1 million commitment, establishing the JIN Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center. Another of the original four Mercatus students from Rutgers, Daniel Klein, BS Economics ’84, will be the first holder of the chair.

Asked what makes being part of Mason and Mercatus so rewarding for him, Fink replies, “It allows us to ‘give back’ and to ‘give forward’ at the same time. Mary and I are honoring our parents and supporting students and professors, just as people supported me. But we’re also investing in education and new research on the most effective means to help people improve their lives. Giving back and giving forward―that’s what being part of Mason and Mercatus makes possible. And what could be more exciting than that?”

—Carrie Conko