For students

Offered with the recognition that I am often wrong. Please weight appropriately.

On economics:
  • Economics is useful preparation for jobs in public policy, urban planning, education, environmental non-profit work, and other fields not commonly associated with the discipline. It need not be a pipeline to finance and consulting.
  • Thomas Carlyle named economics "the dismal science" in an essay called, "An Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question." He disagreed with anti-slavery economists like John Stuart Mill, who argued that incentives and institutions, not racial differences, explained patterns of wealth and poverty.

On learning:
  • My respect for a student is not contingent on ability.
  • Mathematical ability is malleable. You can improve with practice.
  • You need not be the best at something to contribute valuable work, or to enjoy it.
  • Inputs are important. Carefully plan your study and allocate enough time to execute your plan, rather than allowing others to dictate your course.
  • If you never volunteer an incorrect answer in class, you aren't taking enough risks.
  • It is not only normal, but good and useful to begin a problem with no idea how you will solve it. If you train yourself to respond to a tough problem with patient fascination, rather than fear of failure, that will serve you well.
  • If you get stuck on a problem, try to formulate a narrow, well-defined question that will help you make progress. Go slowly and write the question down. (You may need to review notes or books order to write it.) Then find someone to ask.
  • A challenging class in which you earn a B will be more valuable to you than an easy class in which you earn an A. In the long run skills are far more important to your career than GPA.
  • Economist Chris Blattman wrote a good college advice column. I agree with his recommendation to avoid foreign language classes. It is much more efficient to learn languages abroad.

On research:
  • One of my graduate school professors, a famous theorist, told us (paraphrasing): "I first think about how people are behaving. Then I figure out the math that describes my intuition." I prefer to approach theory in this way. Sometimes working through the math causes me to revise my initial intuition, but I like to start from the intuition.
  • Ideas from daily life and social systems tend to yield better papers than ideas from reading existing research.
  • "When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition." --Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman
  • Don't assume others are right. If you investigate and make up your own mind, you will find examples of the following. Cited articles don't establish what citing authors claim they do. Figures in research articles, rather than strengthening a result, actually undermine it. Multiple authors repeat an idea derived from a bad study decades ago.