I’ve been writing for Slate since last summer, cranking out on average about a column a month. Compared to the years-long process of producing and publishing academic research, Slate-writing provides the immediate gratification of producing a widely disseminated document based on a few hours’ work (followed by the hangover of inboxes full of hate mail, regardless of what I’ve written about).
My purpose in writing these columns is to help people understand how we economists spend our time, and what we have to contribute to our understanding of the world. So they’re often geared towards illustrating big economic concepts (like barriers to entry, or signaling models, or search frictions in product markets) in a way that the average reader will find to be engaging. It’s a source of enormous satisfaction that I’ve gotten positive feedback on the columns from top-flight economists as well as random people who track me down via the web and let me know that I’ve somehow informed their views on life and society.
For better or worse, to grab people’s attention, you need more than interesting economics — it helps to have some drug smugglers, mafia characters, warlords or Sex and the City thrown in to motivate the reader (my dating column, based on work with Sheena Iyengar, is the closest I’ve had to “a shot heard around the world” — at least in part because it was picked up by the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd and Al-Jazeera’s Riz Khan).
I also try to write about things before anyone else does. It’s, well, unsatisfying to describe work that’s already showed up in a dozen blogs and appeared on the front page of the New York Times. It’s one of the privileges we have as academic researchers that we actually spend a lot of our time listening to people talk about preliminary work before it shows up on professorial Web pages.
In my Slate column this morning, I write about some very recent work on the impact of attending the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) on racial and religious tolerance. This isn’t economics, per se, but it’s about the hugely important question of whether exposure to people from other backgrounds can help us all learn to get along. It’s impossible to learn much about this by comparing integrated versus segregated communities, for example, since people who are racists probably settle in segregated places and tolerant people move to integrated places.
But the authors have a very clever way of getting around this “self-selection”problem — Pakistanis apply to a lottery to attend the Hajj, so making the pilgrimage is a matter of random assignment, not self-selection. And this means that any difference in tolerance between pilgrims and nonpilgrims is the result of their exposure to other Muslims in Mecca, rather than a preexisting condition (like an openness to travel and new experiences).
I’m always in search of new material, and also feedback on topics that would make for interesting columns. So if you have any ideas, drop me a line.