Justin Wolfers on impact, feminism and economics

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

JW              Justin Wolfers


JW              And it turns out these ethical intuitions over which you might determine tax policy also play out in our lives. Right? At the end of my life I have to write a will. Should I leave the most money to the child who deserves it the most? Should I leave the most money to the child who needs it the most? Should I leave everyone the same amount of money? You can see this exact same morale intuition echo through all of our political debates.

AL               Good day and welcome to The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation, a podcast about living a happier, healthier and more ethical life. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on smarts but not enough on wisdom. So, this podcast seeks out wise people who can share their insights on passion, grit, love and empathy. We’ll discuss everything from sport to parenting and hear the stories of some of the world’s wisest souls.

                   If you enjoy the podcast, let your friends know so they can share the insights. Now, let’s dive into today’s conversation. I first met Justin Wolfers when we were in Sixth Grade. We’d both been admitted to the same school and our parents decided we ought to meet. We stayed good friends through James Ruse, separated a little and then re-joined paths as economists in our 20s.

                   He was one of the groomsmen at my wedding and is one of the most important soul mates that I’ve got. So, that’s why I’ve invited Justin back for a second chat on The Good Life. He’s back in Australia, a country where he grew up but now visits for a month every year, and he’s working on a range of interesting projects, including a brand stonking new economics textbook. But before we get to that, Justin, what’s it like to be in Australia?

JW              Mate, it’s beautiful. Those of your listeners who are in Australia take the beauty here for granted and there’s nothing like 20 years away to remind you of just how extraordinary the place is. You get off the plane, you get hit by the plane and it’s a certain light you can only see in this country. You see this shade of olive you only see on an Australia eucalyptus. You can get a can of Solo, which is quite a good drink. People are happy. It’s egalitarian from moment you get in front of the cab. The food’s fantastic, the wine’s fantastic, a hell of a way of living, really

AL               Do you think of yourself as more Australian or American? You’ve got dual citizenship, so you can pick either.

JW              Mate, I am what I am, someone’s who’s born in Australia, lives in America. I’m deeply engaged in the United States and US policy. That would make me American. I feel a great pride and a great joy in being back in Australia. I just really hope at the Olympics the Matildas don’t end up playing the US women’s national soccer team.

                   Truth is I’d probably cheer for the Matildas in that game. Maybe that’s how you measure it.

AL               What do you admire about the States. Obviously, you’re married to an American but I think there’s more than that, as to why you’re living in America now rather than living in Australia. What do you really find yourself missing after a month in Australia?

JW              Put aside missing. I’ll just come back and tell you what I admire. It’s a place of tremendous intensity. It’s a cliché and I’m sorry for it but it would be socially unacceptable in Australia to say this, I want to be the first in the world to do something or the best in the world of something, and on the campus of a great American university, that’s just what people say.

                   They try and do it and we all fail over and over again but that intensity is marvellous. There’s a different form of honesty among people. Yes, I think it’s the intensity. I think that’s probably true for a lot of Australian in America.

AL               From Hollywood to Silicon Valley to Harvard.

JW              It’s a place of extremes. If you’re America’s best economist, you win the Nobel Prize; if you’re America’s best actor, you win an Oscar; if you’re America’s richest person, you’re worth nearly a trillion dollars, and it goes at the other end of the extreme too, and getting to see some of those extremes, particularly the good ones, is exciting. It’s thrilling. You sometimes get to be invited into rooms you never thought you’d be in. So, yes, it’s… It’s not very articulate, is it?

AL               No, it is. Certainly, a lot of it resonates with me in the four years that I spent living in the States. Just that sense of energy. I’m always struck, particularly with New York… I find when I get out of the subway for the first time in New York, there’s just these initial couple of minutes where I feel taken aback by the sheer energy and intensity of the place. It’s almost like New York is America dialled up to 11.

JW              Everyone on earth agrees with you on that except me. So, I remember back when we did theatre sports, Andrew, that was a bid and I meant to accept it and amplify what you just said but the truth is I get out of the subway and find it groaning and disgusting. So, New York has managed to find joy in what you described.

                   A day in New York versus a day in Sydney, I know which one’s more beautiful. I know which one is more peaceful. And, you’re right, you don’t quite get the intensity and Manhattan is unlike any other place. But it actually leaves me a little cold.

AL               In what ways do you find being in America makes you more productive? Is it the co-workers, the resources that are available to you? As an economist, what is it that really makes a difference for you?

JW              It’s the people around you. That’s not to belittle the people around you in Australia at all. It’s your co-workers, it’s your students, really good, for me, doctoral students, really good Master’s students, really good undergraduates.

                   The absolute lack of a sense of shame about wanting to do something really well is exciting and I get to wake up and talk about economics and then spend my day talking economics, then come home and talk economics and then my children will tell me not to talk about economics but their kids of economists, so they can’t actually help it, even if they think they’re not talking about economics. And that varies in different ways.

                   So, I’m in Michigan right now in an academic enterprise. So, we’re talking about academic economics, a little bit more theoretical. Washington DC, I loved living there. I felt the sense of energy you felt in New York in Washington. Hollywood for nerds. Every conversation… I drop my kid off at day care and I could be dropping my kid off and it would be someone who’s working at the World Bank on some fascinating topic. It could be someone starting a business and, again, that sense of possibility.

AL               You and Betsey have just finished a five-year project of working on a new undergraduate textbook. Tell me how you found that project, what it’s been like to work on and what your aim is for the book.

JW              I’m about to sound very America. It was a labour of love. It was absolutely intensity. It was exactly what we’re just describing, of waking up… I’m an economist, I’ll describe the economics of this. There’s no point writing the second best economic textbook because every student has the choice buy the first best or the second best. So, you do have to have the audacity, and I hope this doesn’t sound unduly immodest, to try to write the best one that’s ever been written.

                   And that means waking up and writing a paragraph, then rewriting it, then sweating over it, then comparing it back to the literature, and then market testing it and there’s not a sentence in the book that hasn’t been rewritten, let’s say, a minimum of 12 times, read by dozens of people, researched to death.

                   And so you only ever undertake a project like that, and it really has been a tremendous amount of work, because you see an opportunity, and the opportunity is to reshape how the next generation learns and understands and relates to economics.

                   If I can make my field, your field, exciting, accessible, if I can help… Market size really matters here. If I can help hundreds of thousands of people make better decisions, no matter what they’re doing, whether they become politicians like you, Andrew, whether they become academics like me, whether they open a local gas station, if I can help them make better choices, I can feel to some part the effort was worth it.

AL               And you’ve always had a strong interest in public policy. Do you feel a bit of that Paul Samuelson sense, that you don’t care who writes the nation’s laws so long as you can write its textbooks?

JW              That is classically immodest Samuelson and the greatest call to arms you’ve ever heard. Look, I’ve spent enough time talking to congressmen, congressional representatives, in the US, talking to politicians like you in Australia and I’m always stunned by how strong their economic views are.

                   That came from somewhere. And it turns out, many of these people, I knew them when they were 22, when I see them in their 40s now in politics. They had those views at 22. They came from somewhere. So, I had the opportunity to help shape that. And those biases really, really, really matter.

                   So, I remember vividly, after the global financial crisis, the debate about whether there should be a fiscal expansion, how big, whether we should have a separate one in the United States and the Democrats, who had vaguely Keynesian intuitions in their bones were almost uniformly for it.

                   The Republicans, very austerity-focussed, completely against it, and these were, I think, sincerely held intuitions. The subsequent choices made by Republicans maybe suggest otherwise. And so in many cases, again, I think real questions of national importance were being made based on what they’d read in their early 20s, and so one of the ways we can fight in a marketplace of ideas, or compete in the marketplace of ideas is try to make sure that students get a fair, balanced, intuitive, useful, accurate understanding of economics.

AL               You use economics in your everyday life as much as anyone I’ve ever met. How much of what you’re aiming to do with the textbook is to have people think more like economists and how much is it to shape economic thinking?

JW              I don’t want to tell anyone what to do. I don’t want to tell them to become economists. Actually, I think everyone uses economics every day in their lives, I’m just somewhat more conscious about it. When you try and decide whether to have a child, the poet will talk about the joy that it brings, the biologist will talk about the hormonal urges. The reality is that both of those are just different words for the benefits. And you’ll think about the costs and choose accordingly.

                   And so I really... And the better you understand what the relevant benefits and costs are, the more likely you are to make a better decision. So, I don’t want to force you to be an economist. What I want to do is equip you with a set of tools which you can play into to whatever degree you like so that you can make clearer choices, ones that serve you and your interests better.

                   Again, I don’t want people sitting down working out marginal benefit, marginal cost spreadsheets but I do want to make sure that when they think about, say, having a kid is a really good example, what are the costs, some of the most important costs are not financial costs, they’re opportunity costs. It’s the opportunity to continue with your career, the opportunity to wait a few years and have a child when you’re a little older and more settled.

                   And, again, a more clear sense of that might lead people to make better choices for themselves. One of the things that I’m proud about in the book is this is not the economic rationalist, you must do everything selfishly. In the very first chapter we say the cost/benefit principle isn’t greedy if you are. So, you enjoy going out to coffee with your grandmother. It might cost you more because you have to pay for her coffee but you know that you’re making the world a better place by spending time with your grandmother. You’re not selfish.

                   And so as an economist I’m not going to ask you to forget that. I’m just going to ask you to remember to call that a benefit for when you want to go and compare that to costs. So, if you truly are altruistic, I want you to make better altruistic choices too.

                   There’s a set of efficiency questions and a set of equity questions. I suppose everyone writing a first-year economics textbook would want students to avoid the fallacy of the sunk cost, to think of the margin and then there’s questions that have more distributional implications, the size of fiscal stimulus, the proper role of taxes in the economy.

                   Did you find yourself being in that sort of Michael Jordan dilemma, that Republicans buy Snickers too and so needing to perhaps hold back on some of your egalitarian impulses at certain points in writing the book? Because if you want to be number one in America, you can’t just write a textbook for Democrats.

JW              My job isn’t to tell students how much they care about inequality. My job is to try and give them frameworks for thinking about their own moral intuitions. So, I don’t have any interest in turning a Republican into a Democrat. Not when I’m writing a textbook. If I was out door-knocking, absolutely.

AL               We should say Betsey worked for the Obama White House, so her credentials are out there fairly clearly.

JW              Yes, no, I have views about the world, without a doubt. The young Justin would never believe the old Justin sincerely believes that but I just want students to have clear, coherent ways of expressing their morale intuitions and so this division between efficiency and equity that some economists talk about, most economists think it’s nonsense. I don’t need to pretend it’s true, so let’s have a real discussion about distribution.

                   And it turns out these ethical intuitions over which you might determine tax policy also play out in our lives. Right? At the end of my life I have to write a will. Should I leave the most money to the child who deserves it the most? Should I leave the most money to the child who needs it the most? Should I leave everyone the same amount of money? You can see the exact same morale intuitions echo through all of our political debates. There are fuzzy and clear ways of expressing those intuitions and so my only real preference is for clear over fuzzy.

AL               Economics has a gender problem. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a survey of the American economics profession found troublingly high levels of sexual harassment reported among female economists. How have you looked to address that in the textbook and do you want to talk to us a little bit also about other ways in which you’ve been involved in the response to this in the US economics profession?

JW              Yes. So, this is something I care very deeply about. It comes from a very simple lived experience. My partner, Betsey Stevenson, is a female economist. I’m a male economist. We’ve been through the profession from graduate school through to working at Wharton and then at Michigan and her experience in Washington together. So, I’ve got to live the profession once through my eyes as a man and to see it once through hers as a woman.

                   I’ve gotten to see… Often when we’ve done identical things, maybe even a co-authored paper, or maybe we’ve given the same class in adjoining classrooms, down to the same joke, how we are treated differently, and that is an absolute eye-opener of an experience. And so, frankly, that did radicalise me. I felt that I could see gender issues.

                   Every time I confessed it to a female friend of mine, they said, what, are you crazy, of course that’s true. That’s obvious. It was less obvious to the broader profession and the profession, I’ve written a series of New York Times columns of which I’m very proud, which have really tried to highlight some of the emerging body of research pointing to really important and very troubling disparities.

                   And that’s helped spur a moment within the profession and we now speak about these issues with a subtlety and an awareness that we didn’t five years ago. I don’t know whether that’s the glass half full story. We’re really talking about it. We’re getting there. Glass half empty story is we’re not there. How does this inform my teaching and what we’ve done in the textbook? Here’s just a very simple fact.

                   Betsey wrote a study a couple of years ago with a graduate student of hers by the name of Hannah Slotnick where they read every single principles of economics textbook from page one to the very last page and every time there was a mention of a person on any page, they coded whether it was a man or a woman, whether they were a business leader, an architect, a politician, whatever it was, whether they were doing something or having something done to them and so on.

                   And the overwhelming fact was for every four mentions of men in an introductory economics textbook there was only one mention of a woman. Now, put yourself in a… Think about how that looks and feels to an 18-year old woman taking her first economics textbook. There’s that wonderful thing from the book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

                   You show someone a photo and the first thing they do is they look for themselves. Well, show them an economics textbook and if they can’t find themselves on any page, how does the profession feel like it recognises them, welcomes them, that people like them can be economists. Or can even just study more economics.

                   So, we made a very, very self-conscious, concerted, totally serious effort to make sure that the people that the business leaders that we profiled, the economic research that we highlighted, everything down to the photos in the margin represented people of different genders.

                   So, I told you before it was four mentions of a man for every one mention of a woman in the other textbooks. We just benchmarked, we came in 50.1% female in our book. We made sure that… I had a student complain to me the other day that they’d taken economics and all the problem sets were about golf, the sport of upper middle class men.

                   She understood all the economics. She didn’t understand the rules of golf. There’s no golf in my book. We made sure that people were living lives that made sense to students, that they could see themselves on the page. We made sure that names reflected an array of ethnicities and if one wants to criticise that and say more political correctness mumbo jumbo, just read the book. It’ll read like every other book, just the names will be like names in the real world rather than all Tom and Jane. And if a few more students find themselves there, I’ll be thrilled.

AL               And the striking thing about this is how easy it is to do. These are made-up names. So, have you noticed, since Hannah and Betsey’s study, whether or not the other textbooks have just quickly revamped so at least in their examples they’re 50/50?

JW              None of them.

AL               That’s extraordinary.

JW              And so you’ll see things like a table of 30 of the great entrepreneurs in American history of whom 30 will be men. So, this is not just I’m not thinking of enough, this is stuff that if you had any awareness, one might edit. Some part of this is really easy, some is really hard. So, I introduced my Game Theory chapter by talking about a chess grandmaster. The first chess grandmaster I thought of was a man, the most famous chess grandmasters are. But there’s a wonderful, wonderful female chess grandmaster.

                   We have another chapter it talks about a brilliant… She wanted to tell the story of a successful business and I talked about Spanx. I learnt a lot more about women’s hosiery in writing that up than probably I ever cared to know. So, it does take some work but, you’re right, in many respects it’s low-hanging fruit and I’ll be thrilled if everyone else does the same.

AL               You’ve also been active in the conversation around the way in which academic seminars should be constructed in economics. I confess, I always really relished the academic seminar culture. It’s one of the things I missed most about leaving academic economics, is that willingness to tell someone who is the authority figure standing up at the front of the room presenting a paper that they’d made a mistake and that you’re going to tell them how to fix it. That’s almost never done in other parts of academia. It’s certainly unknown within my current profession.

                   But it’s also got an aspect of hypermasculinity about it, which I know has deterred many women from pursuing the profession. So, what do you think are the issues with economic seminars? How do you think they can be fixed without losing that high level of scrutiny of ideas?

JW              You’re such an economist, Andrew, because you see everything as a trade-off and sometimes we can just push the production possibilities front here out a little bit. So, it’s not truth-seeking versus being polite.

                   Can we be truth-seeking in a way that’s not needlessly destructive of other people’s dignity? My answer is yes. I at a personal level worked, and I am by no means successful and it’s a work in progress, over recent years to try to be more constructive.

                   So, I know how to raise the objection. You’re wrong, mate, here’s why you’re a fool, you’re a goose. But wouldn’t it be a little bit more useful to suggest what about if you think about it this way? Would this alternative model yield a similar result or a different result?

                   So, I just don’t see there as being a trade-off. I can see how a hypermasculine culture leads to perhaps a greater willingness to butt heads. So, I do want us to retain a culture of caring deeply about the truth. But also we should care deeply about other people and their dignity when they’re in the room, and I think we can achieve both.

                   In your career leading up to this, you’ve been a prolific academic economist, which means publishing lots of articles in top journals and, unusually, you’ve moved across quite a wide array of topics, not only within microeconomics but also, quite unusually, publishing both in macro and micro. How has that strategy served you in profession which is pretty focussed on specialisation, especially in recent decades?

JW              Yes, Adam Smith visited the pin factory and discovered there was returns to specialisation and I forgot to read that chapter. I have now served on many tenure committees and it’s really hard to evaluate cases like that. It’s just more difficult, it’s outside the mould, and I suspect that as a young bloke it didn’t serve me well. I have a different perspective on this.

                   I think I do have an economic specialty. The economic specialty is knowing a little bit about most things. Many other economists know a lot about a few things and there are certain debates in certain domains, public policy being the most obvious one, where my specialty is really, really helpful.

                   There are certain debates in certain domains where my approach is too shallow and not very helpful. But I have a great deal of affection for economic journalists and if you thought of yourself as a labour economist and wanted to grow your field, I think of myself as an economic generalist and I want to grow my field.

                   And I do think the world needs more generalists because at the end of the day there are only a few deep insights that drive all of economic reasoning, and I suspect there are huge gains from trade across sub-tribes and sub-fields of economics and so I’m always happy to encourage people who want to have a go but I do understand that it comes with career risks.

AL               How do you go about encouraging generalists in a specialised world? I’ve just finished reading David Epstein’s book Range, which makes a terrific case for ranging widely at least in your preparatory years and points out that many of the great sports people played a ton of different sports when they were young.

                   Many of the great musicians didn’t just go into a single instrument. You can be very good by specialising from age two but great is normally associated with some form of range early on. So, this ought to apply in economics as well but how do you as a generalist foster more generalists?

JW              Probably not very successfully but all academics have various forms of self-power. You could say to me, oh, our economics department is thinking of hiring, who should we look at? Well, I’m really impressed by generalists, so I’m likely to say a generalist. I used to edit a journal and there are many of the most important questions in economics, I believe, that would require the skills of a generalist. So, I would solicit articles from a generalist.

                   We hire people at the University of Michigan. I’m going to be really impressed with someone who understands all of economics. When I visit the University of Sydney, sometimes I’m there for job talks and if someone shows that they only understand one tiny corner of economics, I suspect that it’s going to be a… The well will run dry pretty quickly, unlike that it might come on the scale for them.

AL               I remember Steve Levitt once saying that one of the things he looked for in job candidates was people who really loved thinking about economics, who didn’t turn off their economic brain after hours. Do you find yourself thinking about economic questions a lot out of hours? When do you think about economics where others wouldn’t?

JW              So, I think a love for economics is a wonderful skill. It’s a productive skill. It’s going to make you a better economist. I’m sure this is true in other fields as well. I hope your listeners will excuse the following I often have young people say, should I pursue a PhD in economics or even in political science or some other field.

                   And my advice to them quite literally is when you go to the bathroom, do you take an economics paper with you? Because is it the most vitally important thing you can do right now, spend the next three minutes, four as you get older, reading a paper and learning a little bit more economics?      So, that’s the bathroom test. And if you’re that into it, you’re not going to enjoy the next four to six years of your life. You’re not going to want to keep investing and writing and working hard at 2 a.m. and it’s going to limit…

                   We all are more productive when we’re passionate about what we’re doing and this is just my test for passion. And, honestly, if you’ve got different views about personal hygiene, you can adapt the poo test. I come from the era when we used paper rather than iPads. I’m talking about for reading the article. But that’s the rough sense of what I think it takes to be successful as a scholar.

AL               You’re insanely productive. You teach a big first-year class, you’ve just finished this large textbook, you’re writing columns for the New York Times. How do you work and what can we learn from the way in which you work to be more productive?

JW              Andrew, almost nothing. You’re insanely productive. I’m always battling to keep my head above water. In the moments where I feel like I’m not seeing my kids enough, I worry I just can’t get enough done, which also might be… The alternate view would be I took on more than I could chew.

                   I use deadlines as strategic weapons against myself and when you’ve got people you’ll let down if the work doesn’t get done, the work ends up getting done. I fight a lot at the moment against perfectionist tendencies. I’m not saying my work’s perfect, I’m saying I fight against is it ready, can I show the world, how polished does it have to be? In some domains, really, the answer is it has to be as polished as you can get it but in others, it doesn’t, and I feel like I’m having to relearn that rule every day.

AL               Do you put work out for feedback more often now than you used to? I remember you once making a comment to me that a lot of people in academia think that others will steal their ideas and then later on they realise the challenge is actually getting others to read their ideas. So, are you more inclined to circulate work to large numbers of people for feedback?

JW              I’ve always wanted to aggressively socialise what I do. Part of it is that we’re not just researchers, we’re storytellers and you very quickly learn, the first time you tell a story, it’s not very interesting or you don’t get it right or the narrative… Things aren’t in the right order. You describe the work to the second person, you’ll describe it more coherently that you did the first time. It’s not necessarily you didn’t understand it the first time but you’re learning how to tell your story.

                   Sometimes you need to use an analogy, sometimes you need to bring the motivation upfront and you tell the story over and over and over again and eventually you get good at it. You as a politician would understand that. I am certain there are topics you’ve given speeches on where it was rusty the first time and then you were bored the second time and told a joke at the 26th minute, led people to laugh.

                   Next time you gave it, you brought that joke right up front. People laughed again. And then you got a whole bunch of punchlines you can now use every time you talk about, say, inequality. Actually, I think fields do this as well. Take any economic idea. The one at the front of my mind is asymmetric information. When George Akerlof first wrote the paper about the lemons problem, it was difficult. It was new. Within a couple of years we taught it to PhD students in our doctoral classes and we thought that they could understand it.

                   And then we kept telling the story until we understood which parts of the math were doing the work and then how to say them in English instead of math and then we could teach them to college seniors. We kept telling the story and that was an important part. Eventually we thought that we could teach it to second-year uni students.

                   And we keep telling the story and now, 20 years later as a profession, we’re now ready to teach it to first-year uni students and we can do it in a way that they walk out and it seems pretty straightforward and at the end of all that, you’re like how did this bloke win a Nobel? And you’ve got to remember 20 years ago we didn’t know how to tell the story and we didn’t understand the moving parts and we didn’t know what was driving what. George did, the rest of us didn’t. So, like everything else, the more you practice, the better you get at it.

AL               Do you find that it takes a certain discipline to create a fairly boring structure to your life in order to be productive around that framework?

JW              If you could talk to my children and have them create a boring structure to my life, that would be immensely helpful. I lack the personal discipline to be any good at life hacks. So, why don’t you tell me what I ought to be doing?

AL               Well, you’ve chosen a city with short commuting times.

JW              That’s true, yes.

AL               And a life which allows you to spend a lot of time either with your kids or at your desk, not sitting in a small metal box.

JW              Yes.

AL               You’re not distracted by the entertainment of New York City, which you’ve told us is not one of your favourite cities.

JW              No.

AL               Is that a deliberate choice?

JW              Yes. So, the cost of time is high. That’s how an economist would say it, right? If every day I remember that the cost of time is high, then there’s a very high barrier before something can get on my diary. Now, that high barrier might be if you want me to give a talk, are there going to be enough people in the room that’s worth my time? If it’s my kids, are they actually going to be cute? I’m kidding with that.

                   But it's hard to think about that. We’re in some sense blessed with so much time but then the moment you start thinking about it, we’re given far too little. And so just being absolutely relentlessly miserly about that is perhaps the only thing I get right. What that does is it removes the element of serendipity.

                   Earlier in my career, before I had that discipline, I would say yes to all sorts of weird and, frankly, dumb things and then I’d turn up at a conference and some guy was running a company, he’d have a lot of data on his hard drive and he’d give it to me. Serendipity is quite an amazing thing. And so I haven’t recreated. So, discipline can be regimenting and if you’re trying to create something new, you need a little bit more than just a regimented life.

AL               You were speaking the other day, when we were yarning about the importance of thinking about impact and your argument that as human beings we’re not very good at distinguishing something that has an impact on ten people compared to 10,000 people.

JW              So, that’s, I think, the trick, the puzzle and the responsibility of the public and electoral, or any of us, who want to have an effect on the world out there. We’re very good at… And charities understand this. So, World Vision doesn’t ask you for money, they ask you to sponsor a person who has a photo and a name and they write back to you and you can go to bed at night thinking I helped Philip, or whatever this person’s name is.

                   Now, it’s often the case that these charities might be not the highest bang for your buck. Maybe it’s something like bed nets or deworming or something way less sexy, where all you’re doing is buying netting and sending it to poor villages. But the reality is maybe you save ten lives instead of one, and as economists it seems ten times more important. And so that whole question of scale shapes everything we do.

                   Teaching can be both an enormous pay-off and a tremendous trap because when you teach, you walk into a classroom. If you walk into a classroom of four students, they’re all going to be smiling at the end because everyone loves small class sizes. You get immense positive feedback and positive reinforcement. But that was four. What if you talk 500?

                   And what if instead of teaching 500, you wrote a column that was read by 50,000 or 500,000, and then you also have to think about who’s reading it as well. And the scale of what we do really varies incredibly and the thing you’ve got to remember is every zero makes it ten times more important. We’re just not well programmed to understand that. So, the truth is I worked so hard on my textbook because it will be the most read thing I ever write by two orders of magnitude.

AL               Meaning, for non-economists, 100 times more read than anything else.

JW              Yes. Thank you for speaking English there. I think that’s hard and I think also academic institutions find this hard. I know that I’ve been places where they do things like this person’s often cited in the press. Being cited in the Detroit Free Press is one thing, being cited in the Wall Street Journal is another. They’re, again, many orders of magnitude different. So, how do you spend your time? Which phone calls do you answer? It should shape everything we do and it’s just a difficult discipline.

AL               How does that shape how you allocate time to things like email and Twitter?

JW              On email I’m not very good. I fall for this mistake. A student from the other side of the world writes to me and says that they’re very interested in the economics of marriage and divorce and they’re trying to replicate my paper and could I help them. I think to myself, it will only take a few minutes and I help them, and that’s what humans do. But it may not have been the highest impact use of my time.

                   Twitter’s a funny one. The reason I took up social media like Twitter is actually I used to sit in my office and take calls from several journalists. Four or five in a row might call about the same issue. If I just knock out a couple of tweets, if they all follow me, then instead of talking to five journalists, now I’m talking to 5,000.

                   That struck me as wildly efficient. That is the reality. That’s why. One can be critical of social media for various reasons but Twitter is one that is very attractive to journalists. Journalists are very attractive if you’re interested in impact because each of them has thousands of articles.

                   So, if I can hit thousands of people, reach thousands of eyeballs, thousands turn thousands equals a big number. And also Twitter doesn’t have to be high cost. One can, of course, tweet on the way to the bus. If one were unhygienic, one could do it on the toilet. So, it, again, just seems like an easy way that can be moderately high impact. Not always. Sometimes we have fun. We’re social creatures.

AL               Let’s finish on family. What are you trying to do this year in terms of being a better dad and a better partner to Betsey? What are the ways in which you’re trying to just grow as a parent?

JW              What a wonderful question. It’s one of the wonderful things having you in my life, Andrew, that you ask questions like that and I think we all need someone in our lives who does that. I’m going to listen better and start with an always positive presumption.

                   When you live with someone for a long time, you know the things that you frustrate you and sometimes you forget the joys you started with and the same piece of information can annoy you if you start with a negative prior and can thrill you if you start with a positive prior.

                   It doesn’t actually matter what the truth is, does it? The two of you can create joy together. So, I want to listen. I want to be more positive about that. And for the kids, frankly, I just want to be more present. Get down to their level, look them in the eye, not at my iPhone and smile.

AL               What’s your attitude to their use of technology and iPhones?

JW              So, that’s a hard one. None of us knows the answer. Right? Because we are the first generation growing up with this technology. It’s impossible for the research to have been done yet to inform appropriate parenting. So, we’re relying on unscientific intuitions.

                   I think technology can be tremendously empowering, so I don’t want to be a Luddite. I think it can be tremendously addictive, so I don’t want to allow excessively addictive behaviours. So, in our family Friday night is electronics night and the kids knock themselves out and basically get drunk on electronics. And the other six nights of the week they don’t at all. And that means they’re present and it also reduces… The good thing about hard rules is it reduces lobbying and lobbying is expensive if… Because lobbying often sounds like nagging.

                   That’s obviously going to have to evolve because as Matilda gets older, she’s going to have more homework on the computer. We’re going to have to create a space for that. I’m thrilled the kids have Kindle. So, I don’t regard that as electronics, I regard that as a book. And, look, we’re all just trying to guess this stuff together and I’m sure as heck not going to judge anyone else’s choices on this stuff either.

AL               Any final tips or thoughts, Justin? Any interesting projects you’re working you’d like people to follow?

JW              Mate, I have no wisdom. It’s deeply flattering that you ask but the most puzzling thing in the world is that you would ask me questions about the good life. I feel like I know a thing or two about economics and the rest of it is just fumbling around.

AL               Yes, but you look gloriously happy. You’ve always been a happy bloke but you look as happy now in 2022 as when I’ve ever known you. So, whatever’s going on internally, whatever the ducks paddling fast under the water, it seems to be, at least on the surface, producing a Justin who looks pretty content with the world.

JW              That’s thrilling to hear. So, I’ll call that my personal happiness report and it sounds like I’m getting something right and I guess that’s why we have friends in our lives.

AL               Thanks, again, Justin. Delighted to talk.

JW              Thanks, Andrew.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.