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April 25, 2008

Economics for Everyone

Ray Fisman
Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise
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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.

Comments

by sandeep deb | April 26, 2008 at 6:59 PM

Our economy status is slipping. People need to focus on the Executive Branch of Government. Why has Obama not been mentioned at his Columbia (since he got his Bachelors here) ? McCain has no common sense and graduated 894/899 people in the U.S. Naval Academy. Why are Americans picking dumb asses for president. Why do colleges put so much emphasis on SAT, when people who get 2400 (or old 1600) fail to be the best! C'mon we need to step up. Economy needs to rise...people need to vote for the right candidate, not the ones who end up in Harvard or Yale by Parental status.

by Raman Kannan | April 28, 2008 at 11:03 AM

Lucky to be in tune.. Congratulations on Slate initiative. great idea! Would suggest/recommend the following topics Need to reform performance incentive practiced in Wall St -- 3 years of Bonus pool at BSC could have bought the BSC though it would not have helped the liquidity crisis. BONUS should not be cash and carry. Should be placed in an escrow account the employee can draw no more than 10% any given year. The accumulating funds could have helped BSC borrow from the BONUS fund and tide over the difficulties. Certain employees who brought down the firm could have been penalized for their conduct. (2) State sponsored Ponzee schemes or Redistribution Mechanisms OR Lever yourself to be untouchable OR Trump approach to financial invincibility I am not sure bailing out irresponsible actors such as BSC/LTCM, Savings and Loan of the 80s are really gov. sponsored redistribution that occurs every 10 years. (3) Business of Education It does not make sense to cling onto this 4 year college degree anymore -- body of knowledge has increased entropically -- now that new distribution channels have come about -- If I re-incarnate in 2050 will I still find myself in 4 year degree programs. regards Raman EMBAG 2005

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