The Virginia School
The Virginia School
Even academic departments famous for having a "character" are far from intellectually homogenous, but they do suggest certain family resemblances. George Mason University's economics department is populated by many libertarians, but libertarianism is not its most salient feature. In speaking with several members of the department, I searched for le mot juste: "Freakonomics"? "Weird economics"? "Interesting economics" turned out to be the least inaccurate term for a sub-discipline that encompasses such questions as whether bounty hunters are (and pirates were) as violent as is commonly supposed, how best to survive torture, and whether one ought to pay to have one's head frozen after snuffing it.
Northern Virginia's GMU was once known mainly as a commuter school, but its economics department has risen to national prominence in part because of the two Nobels awarded to faculty members in the past 20 years, and also because of its brand of "interesting economics," which has helped make it one of the most-quoted economics departments in the world.
At an Asian noodle joint in Fairfax, I asked faculty member Alex Tabarrok what he meant by "interesting," to which he replied, "Initial surprise, followed by obviousness."
His colleague Robin Hanson plunged in. "And that's the definition of news, right? News is something you wouldn't have expected beforehand, but after you read the article, you have to be persuaded." But there are other factors at work that might account for GMU's most-quoted status, Hanson admits. There's certainly an effect, he explained, whereby reporters want politically-balanced coverage and, given the smaller pool of academics on the Right, GMU benefits. "There's more of a priority on plain-speaking, too," he said, and finally for some departments topics that are of interest "to ordinary people are for that reason suspect."
I asked Tabarrok if GMU wanted to engage the world out of an impulse toward public service. He agreed but added that "we're also honestly interested in the stuff we do with it. There's a certain freedom that comes with setting aside other people's ideas of what you're supposed to do and just doing what seems interesting. You accept a little dissing, I guess."
"Part of what's interesting is that it could help," said Hanson, clearly not enthused by public service per se. "Economics as a discipline is really the only social science where normative claims, about what should happen, are part of the standard literature. Most other social sciences, you can read between the lines and see their agenda."
These two are used to controversy. Tabarrok has argued that
bounty hunters are more effective than traditional law enforcement,
and do not violate the rights of citizens at a significantly
different rate. He has also suggested a plan for improving organ
donation, in which people would be given an incentive to sign their
organ donor cards: Namely, if they didn't, they would not get
an organ in the event that they needed one. Hanson is perhaps best
known in the mainstream press for originating the idea of the
Policy Analysis Market, known better as the "terror futures
market," whose unpopularity eventually led to the resignation
of John Poindexter, then director of the Defense Department's
Information Awareness Office.
Hanson described the fallout. "Monday morning a press conference was held by two senators saying the Defense Department's gonna bet on terrorism, and that that's really 'icky.' The next morning it was cancelled, and then coverage was cancelled. I wouldn't say that's the most icky [of my ideas]. That's just what got attention.... People say 'ew' when you think abstractly. It makes us colorful, though. Ick is certainly colorful. Ick isn't boring."
Adjunct professor Arnold Kling offered a terser précis of the GMU way. "My simple way of describing it is that at Chicago they say, 'Markets work; let's use markets.' At Harvard and MIT they say, 'Markets fail; let's use government.' And at George Mason, we say, 'Markets fail; let's use markets.'" This seeming paradox means, that GMU sees plenty of deviations from the "perfect neoclassical paradigm," which requires "perfect information, perfect competition," but that unlike Harvard or MIT, they do not automatically "ring a bell and say, 'We need more government.' Markets come up with solutions to problems of information."
Kling spent most of his career outside of the academy, working for the Fed, Freddie Mac, and his own late-nineties Internet business, whose sale gave him financial independence. He started one of the first blogs, EconLog (which now features fellow GMU economist Bryan Caplan as well). One of the blog's readers, Donald Boudreaux, happened to be the chair of the GMU econ department and brought Kling into the fold. (Boudreaux eventually started his own economics blog, Café Hayek.) Blogging's prevalence at GMU, said Kling, is best explained by GMU's "more philosophical than mathematical orientation."
"There are some people who figure out what they think by saying it first," said Kling, "That seems awkward, but there are people who do it." Now, in addition to Kling, Boudreaux, and Caplan, the department's Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, Russ Roberts, Peter Leeson, and Robin Hanson all maintain blogs.
In a Latin American restaurant, Bryan Caplan told me about his latest book, The Myth of the Rational Voter.
Controlling for income, Caplan explained, well-informed poor people favor very different policies than poor people who are not informed. Informed how? Well, he explained, one could administer tests of general political knowledge -- e.g., How long is a U.S. senator's term? How many states in the union? Does the U.S. belong to NATO? -- as well as others about specific aspects of economics. Those who pass the test would be given the franchise.
His idea has met resistance, most often, he said, from those who believe this will mean that the interests of the poor will be ignored by politicians. Caplan though points out that voters who passed his test, whether rich or poor, favor similar policies, meaning that in this context class interest is not a valid concept.
What policies do those in the know go for? If one breaks the population into income quintiles and controls for income, he said, the more informed people are more likely to favor markets over government intervention. On foreign affairs, the informed toe the libertarian line a little less closely. "Basically," he said, "on foreign policy, people who know more generally favor a more active but less aggressive role." More knowledgeable people are more pro-choice, which may seem strange, he says, because you "may think that abortion is just a values question," but there are actually a lot of questions you can ask about how you propose to ban abortion, e.g., would you actually put women in jail, or would you consider a doctor a murderer?
Surely, though, intellectuals tend to hate the market? Educated people, in general, he answered, are more pro-market, but "if you're highly educated and you don't like the market, then you tend to stay in the university."
"What I say in the book," he said, "is the reason why I call it The Myth of the Rational Voter instead of The Myth of the Well-Informed Voter is that there's a rational posture for a person to take when they haven't studied a subject, and that's agnosticism. So, if you haven't studied the history of ancient Sumeria, you don't generally form a strong opinion about it anyway and then freak out when someone argues with you. Instead you just say, 'Look, I just don't know very much about it. Could be. I don't know.' So if the problem were just ignorance, things would actually be fine because basically people who hadn't studied economics would say, 'I don't know much about this economics stuff -- no opinion.' And then politicians who were voting on economic policies, they would have to appeal to people who do know something."
He went on: "If you don't know something about [an issue], it's irresponsible to have an opinion. And there are a lot things where we would think someone who had an opinion without studying something was just a jackass."
Hazarding a moment of jackassedness, I ventured that many policy issues revolve around first principles, on which people feel entitled to an opinion because of, for example, deep feelings or religious revelation.
"On the revelation of religion," he said, "You could say, well, have you studied any of the other major religions? Have you talked to people who don't agree with those religions? It seems to just jump to the conclusion that whatever religion you grew up with is the true religion."
"My point is not that being agnostic is the best thing," he continued, "but it's the reasonable thing to do if you haven't studied a subject at all.... People are just defying the basic intellectual standards of 'Look before you leap' or 'If you haven't looked, don't leap.'"
"My business isn't in selling ideas that will play well. What I try to do is try to make arguments that I think are true and important and original that are not appreciated today. That's what's fun for me, first of all, and I think there's more value in just getting people to rethink things that everyone takes for granted. It's what I do least badly, anyway."
Another project Caplan is currently working on is tentatively titled The Selfish Reason to Have More Kids, the argument being that you'll be better taken care of in your golden years. The idea initially began as a three-paragraph post on his blog. A producer from Good Morning America called about the post, mistakenly thinking Caplan had written a book. Caplan called them back to explain, but later he got to thinking that if Good Morning America was calling him when there wasn't even a book, there would be ample press when an actual book appeared.
The less senior professor Ilia Rainer had been tempering the libertarian enthusiasm at the table by playing devil's advocate. He asked Caplan how he knew what motivated parents to have -- or, in this case, not to have -- another child.
"Well," said Caplan, "I mean this comes from just my conversations with parents, including my wife, who I haven't been able to convince. We have twins. So I can't even convince my wife. I say, 'How many copies of this book do I have to sell before you'll have another kid?' But it's not like she's got a good answer for the argument." He laughed.
After lunch, I followed Rainer into his office and asked him about "interesting economics" and libertarianism at GMU. "I know that most economists are libertarian by the standards of broad society," he said, "I think the field of economics in some broad sense makes you favor markets. But on these subtle issues, on what exactly the policies should be, if you talk to professors at top schools, I don't think they hold any a priori views."
He also offered an, er, interesting way out of the "interesting" vs. "boring" dichotomy in economics. He believes it comes down to an emphasis on method or topic. "Some people are more willing to sacrifice on methods if they can answer some new question," he said. The so-called "interesting economists" innovate topically but less so methodologically, whereas the "boring economists" answer the same question for the 500th time with a new method.
Peter Leeson suggested another possible answer: Milton Friedman's observation that "in the end there's just good economics and bad economics." But Leeson wasn't ready to give up entirely on "interesting" economics: "If my mom finds a paper interesting, that's an indicator to me that I'm on the right path, that people outside of the small group of academics actually see some value in what we might be doing."
But can economics be too interesting? "Results that are quirky make it difficult to persuade people that your conclusions are true. So there's a sort of optimal amount of weirdness that you want to have. You don't want to be so far off the deep end that nobody will listen to you, that you'll be dismissed out of hand. But you want to be novel enough that you're doing something interesting."
I wonder if Leeson thinks "interesting economics" biases the scholar towards the counterintuitive. "It depends on the audience we're talking about," he said, "It needs to be counterintuitive to somebody, but it doesn't necessarily have to be counterintuitive to the profession, although it probably helps if it is." He cited a paper by a friend on moral hazard in NASCAR, specifically how safer cars led to more crashes. That, he said, is counterintuitive to the layman but not to the economist.
Some profiles have pegged Robin Hanson as somehow intimidating or eccentric, but I found his intellectual approach exhilarating. His blog, Overcoming Bias, features a painting by John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens, in which the hero exhibits a good deal of bias towards the sirens -- though luckily he's tied to the mast. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that he's paying to have his head frozen when he dies with the expectation that he might therefore live for an uncommonly long time.
"Freezing a brain today in liquid nitrogen destroys many things, but seems to preserve this type/connection info," he wrote on his Web site in 2001, "By 2100 we should be able to scan this info from a frozen brain. If we scan your brain and then build and run a computer simulation of it, someone who remembers being you would wake up and feel alive."
A tendency in Hansonian rhetoric, I found, was to describe the world in such a tone as to channel the harshness of the very aspect of the world he wanted to palliate. For example, he wrote a paper on the economics of The Matrix. In assigning the computer-controlled matrix a real-world analogue, he decided on genes. "Your genes are making you do stuff that is in their interest and not yours, like, for example DIE," he explained to me, pumping equal measures of joy and revulsion into that last syllable.
Hanson was also more than willing to train his sights on his own profession. "On a kind of local level," he began quietly, "academics are trying to succeed in being impressive. They're trying to get impressive articles published in impressive journals, departments are trying to hire impressive people, and journals are trying to publish impressive articles so that they'll seem to be higher status, and they're all bidding for some level of 'impressive,' which ultimately means not everyone can do this, and that can often lead to innovation -- that is, one way to be impressive is to do certain kinds of things that are innovative -- but it doesn't have to be."
"Why should academics investigate interesting, promising topics per se if they're not rewarded for it?" he continued, with a touch of ironical bitterness, "Just like everybody else, they've got some customers, the customers want something, and they're rewarded for giving the customers what they want."
"Would you have chosen to go to a school with less prestigious people who nevertheless contributed more to innovation? Would you have? " His voice is still calm yet somehow incendiary.
I replied that I knew I wanted to go to a prestigious school, and chose the one I currently attend because I had visited it on a particularly pleasant day.
"So apparently prestige and a tolerable climate, and setting, of course, were the main criteria, right? You didn't look for innovation, you didn't say, 'How much have these people contributed?' You know, you could have read a magazine and said, 'Wow. Here's a person that's really contributed a lot. I think I'll go to his school.' You didn't do that, right? So you're a customer, you did what all the other customers do, so you can't complain that you get the product you wanted. You got prestige. You didn't ask for innovation. You didn't get innovation necessarily. You got prestige."
I agreed, but qualified this mildly by saying that I don't think my high-school self would have picked an innovative professor very well.
"But if there's something you weren't looking for then even if you have better judgment you weren't necessarily going to pick it." He had got me there, and another bias had been overcome.
"[Robin] comes from a physics background," said Tyler Cowen in his Arlington office, filled with Latin American and Caribbean paintings in the naïve style, "and I'm much more from the humanities, so I'm more of a pluralist. He tends to think in terms of very simple theories like physics or biology, and I tend to think things are very complicated, and that a good explanation will look messy. When he hears a messy explanation, he tends to think something's wrong. I tend to think that it's fruitful."
Cowen's dignified carriage distinguishes him from his colleagues who sometimes seem to run over with fizz, but his most distinctive feature is his unusual voice, for which I've flipped through my rolodex of adjectives and settled on "fey."
"He's [Hanson] more of a Darwinian," Cowen continues, "It's not that I think the theory of evolution is wrong, but I don't think Darwin is the way to approach every social science problem."
All of Cowen's degrees are in economics despite his passion for fiction and music: "For me, it was always reading first. I knew I was going to do reading for life, and then economics was one way of settling on how to do that. But economics was in that way a secondary commitment. Reading was the prior commitment."
Did he select economics as a way of deciding what to read? "Yeah, it's way of organizing what you read. It's also a way of getting a job. I thought of being a philosopher, which I still enjoy, but you're paid less. It's hard to get a job at all; you have fewer other opportunities."
His goal, however, has never been to develop a theory of aesthetics, a way to separate the good from the bad. If someone offers a principle of aesthetics, he said, "I think it's pretty much always wrong."
"Aesthetics is a big mystery, and I try not to get too metaphysical about it. I just try to be practical, like 'How can I enjoy this story?' I think it's a more useful question. But they ask, 'What really makes this beautiful?' I'm not sure we'll ever answer that other question."
His policy is to read a review only up to the moment when he decides whether he wants to read the book. "Maybe I'm busy, but it's not just that I'm busy, it's that I want to read the book fresh," he explained, "So I don't really give reviewers a chance. They have a chance to convince me I want to read it, and then I dispense with them." His favorite critics, he said, are the reviewers on Amazon.com.
This doesn't mean that all individual judgments have equal value. "If someone didn't like Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn or Chopin at all, I would think something is going on. I wouldn't say, 'Oh, it's subjective taste.' Now you might have someone who would say, 'Well, I recognize Mozart as great but for emotional reasons, I'm going to listen to country and western music.' That to me is a bit more of a subjective difference, but if someone actually thinks, 'No, this is not likeable music' -- I think that's a mistake, almost like saying two and two equals five."
He qualified this pronouncement, though, regarding single works. "Like if someone says, 'Well, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: It reached too far. The chorus doesn't work. To me it feels overblown.' While I don't agree, there I would just think that's a different point of view. There's no way I'm going to prove they're wrong and I'm right. If someone just says of Beethoven, 'He was trash,' I think that's just wrong."
* * *
I tried to articulate my sense that, despite their vast smarts and experience, these "interesting economists" underrate the stubbornness of the public, the capacity for their schemes to result in unintended consequences, and the danger of seeking to wipe established modes of thought off the table like so many bread crumbs. But this sense was ultimately defeated by their irrepressible enthusiasm for ideas and refusal to mistake boredom for rigor. A cynic might scoff that the emphasis on the researcher's intellectual titillation is just a vaunted solipsism, but the truer statement is that real curiosity cannot be solipsistic: It is too interested in the world.
"Poetry is far too trivial to lie about," wrote the critic William Logan, so perhaps unheeded economists should take grim satisfaction in the sight of civilians stuffing their ears with their index fingers. Not to be counterintuitive, but it stands to reason that the notion that most prefer to live under a canopy of economic falsehood testifies to the field's importance.