The Disrupters

This article first appeared in the September/October issue of Politico Magazine.

I’m hardly the first person to extol the virtues of the sharing economy—the latest iteration of which comes in the form of smartphone apps like Airbnb or Uber that connect people who want somewhere to stay or a ride with people willing to provide it. Tech that allows me to book an apartment halfway around the world or order a cab on my phone in mere minutes is pretty cool. But what many miss is how crucial an abstract concept—trust—is to making these businesses work. The sharing economy is changing our travel habits, fragmenting taxi and hotel services into hundreds of thousands of independent providers. It could also utterly transform the way our political institutions work. READ ARTICLE »

A Professor’s Professor


In his classroom, rigor was its own reward. By Russell Roberts.

This article was originally printed in the Hoover Digest on July 9, 2014.

Gary Becker was my PhD adviser at the University of Chicago. We graduate students were in awe of him and more than a little afraid of him. He had a very big brain and was never one for casual conversation or chitchat. READ ARTICLE »

Why Frank Underwood is a Democrat

This post originally appeared in Politico Magazine on 5/19/2014.

By now, most “House of Cards” junkies have gotten their fix and consumed all 13 episodes of season two of the buzzy Netflix show. Waiting for season three gives us time to step back and consider what we might learn from what is certainly the best political drama you can stream over the Internet.



The Human Side of Trade

Free trade is on the run. The president-elect of the United States calls the free market the “dumb market.” He wants to renegotiate past trade deals. The death spiral of manufacturing jobs makes people wonder if trade with China was really such a good idea. Some economists claim to have found evidence that increased trade with China causes an increase in suicide. It is tempting to argue then, that free trade, while good for the economy, is not so good for human beings.

Trade has undeniable human costs — dislocated and unemployed workers, some of whom struggle to find dignified ways to support themselves and who may be left with dreary lives without meaning. What are the benefits? One benefit is obvious — less expensive clothes, toys, and gadgets. But if that’s the end of the story, it’s a pretty bad deal.

But it’s good for the economy! It’s efficient! That’s the free market way! These are inadequate and irrelevant justifications. What we care about is how trade affects our daily lives as workers and consumers. If trade is about getting cheap stuff at the price of wrecking millions of lives, then the American people and its leaders would be right to reject it.


  • 12.12.16

Wanting to want what we want

I have been thinking about consciousness recently. What is the source of human consciousness? Is it merely physical? Can it be uploaded? Duplicated via artificial intelligence? Will machines get conscious enough to feel and to care the way we do? This brief essay pulls together my thoughts on these issues linking some reading and thinking I’ve been doing on consciousness with a number of conversations I’ve had recently for EconTalk on artificial intelligence. It’s my way of trying to see how these ideas fit together, at least in my own consciousness. Perhaps you will find it of interest.

Philosophers David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel have raised the question of whether it is possible to have a scientific/material explanation of consciousness. Chalmers has argued we’re going to need a new biology. Nagel has written that the “materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false” suggesting that if current theories of evolution and biology and chemistry cannot explain consciousness, then they are not just incomplete but deeply flawed overall and unsatisfying. I take his challenge to be something along these lines: how is it that the most distinctive feature of the creature who ponders the source of life on earth has not developed an explanation of how we feel when we’re doing the pondering? That’s a little melodramatic perhaps but the gist of it is that the essential feeling we have of being alive and the texture of daily life seems hidden from standard materialistic scientific explanations. Chalmers calls it “the hard problem” of consciousness. The issue is even more interesting because Chalmers and Nagel are both non-believers who reject a divine explanation for consciousness.

What is the hard problem of consciousness, exactly? READ ARTICLE »

  • 06.20.16

The Data in the Wells Report

I’m biased. I’m a Patriots fan. I wanted the Wells Report to exonerate the Patriots, their staff, and their quarterback. It did not. The question remains as to whether it’s accurate.

There are many damning facts in the Wells Report. Texts. Unexpected bathroom adventures. A reference to a needle and a reference to a deflator. Are there innocent explanations for those facts? Maybe.

But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to discover that Brady encouraged Patriots employees to push the envelope on the low side of the legal psi limit. He apparently likes the ball softer than harder. Maybe they had an “understanding.” No smoking gun, no explicit texts, but winking and nodding. Very possible. Maybe “probable” or “likely” as the Wells report concludes. There’s circumstantial evidence pointing that way. (And if there was any evidence pointing in an opposite direction, the Wells Report chose not provide it.)

But as a data guy, I’m interested in the data the Wells Report provides and whether it reinforces the circumstantial evidence. What I’ve tried to do here is bring out some issues I have not seen discussed elsewhere related to the data. We’re going deep into the weeds.


  • 05.13.15


How Markets Use Knowledge


Economists will often say that prices steer knowledge and resources. Prices are traffic cops that signal to buyers and sellers what is scarce and what is valuable. But what does this mean exactly? How do prices achieve this?


  • 09.17.14

Supply and Demand and common mistakes students make when using them


Three fundamental postulates of behavior underlie all of the analysis in these notes:

  1. Individuals act in their own self-interest, properly defined
  2. No free lunch
  3. No one needs anything


  • 09.15.14

Applications of Supply and Demand

The following applications of supply and demand relentlessly use the idea that markets clear.  Price adjusts to equate quantity supplied and quantity demanded.  Competition is drives this adjustment.   When there is excess demand, buyers compete with each other to access to scarce goods.  When there is excess supply, sellers compete with each other to get access to scarce buyers. READ ARTICLE »

  • 09.14.14