Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"Interesting" Economists?

(Four of GMU's profs clockwise from lower left: Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen. See more photos of GMU faculty here.)

A friend of mine just gave me a copy of a good article on GMU's Economics Department:

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.

Adjunct professor Arnold Kling offered a terser prĂ©cis 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.”

“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.

Read the whole thing.

I recently wrote:

I have been somewhat disappointed by how few applicable ideas I've learned since starting my PhD. It seems like much research in economics today is trivial and of interest only to academics who try to outdo each other with esoteric mathematical cleverness. Many of these ideas hold very little relevance to understanding or impacting the "real world".
Had I gone anywhere but GMU, I think I would be feeling this far more intensely. They really do like ideas here, even if they sometimes cut against the grain.

To get more familiar with the department, here is a list of faculty and students in GMU's econ department who have blogs and some of the reasons I like GMU so much. Incidentally, my blog is still the #1 Google hit for "I love GMU".

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