BFP: What did you want to be when you were 5 years old, and what went so wrong that you wound up a scholar of the dismal science?
MR: When I was 5, I told everyone that I wanted to be a financial wizard. When I finally discovered what stock brokers and stock traders did, I decided they were not really that bright. Consequently, I focused on mathematics, physics, and economics. What could possibly be more interesting than applying quantitative tools to modeling human behavior?
BFP: What brought you to Williams, and then how did you come to Bennington from there?
MR: From my freshman year of college, I knew that I wanted to be a professor at a small liberal arts college. I thoroughly enjoy teaching, and liberal arts colleges are the only places that actually award effective teaching (although surprisingly research is more important than teaching at many of them). Williams is the top liberal arts college. It was a natural fit.
A colleague at Williams notified me of an opening to teaching microeconomics at Bennington. I thought it sounded like fun and applied for the job. After working with the faculty and students for a few terms, I fell in love.
BFP: In what dimensions are Bennington and Williams students most different? In what dimensions are Bennington and Williams most different institutionally?
MR: The student bodies differ in many ways. Virtually no one at Williams has ink, piercings, or smokes. The Bennington students look much like students at my alma mater, Hendrix College. Less obviously but more importantly, Bennington students are more intellectually curious than Williams students. Many Williams students see college as a four year party that stands between them and Wall Street. Often, they simply don’t care about learning. I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the spark of curiosity and later understanding in the eyes of many Bennington students.
Institutionally, Williams is very traditional. One could even say that most other liberal arts colleges copy the practices of Williams. They have a large endowment, which makes life easier along many dimensions. To me, the highlight of Bennington is the Plan system. The plan system provides amazing flexibility for the Bennington students. The process delivers its value by forcing students to repeatedly evaluate what they want to study and why they study it. These questions are often unasked and unanswered in more traditional environments.
MR: You're an unabashed libertarian—Bennington students tend lean more towards the progressive side of things. What enlightenment are we missing which might convince us to see things more in your way?
BFP: I used to be a libertarian. I am now less convinced that free markets and well-defined property rights will solve all of our problems. For example, I would set up a single payer (government) system for Health Care provision in the US. Honestly, this is what we are moving towards, just in a way that will cost us trillions extra to get there. The revelation is simple. People respond to incentives, and markets usually allocate resources in an efficient way. That’s it.
MR: You're making iOS apps now—how's that going? What else is in the future for you?
EconGrapher is now the number two hit in iTunes when you search for economics. We won the Williams College Business Plan competition and are using the funds to expand the product this summer. We hired 7 students to work as interns developing a web version of the product, which will easily port to Android. The interns will also assist with marketing, patent research, pedagogical research, and design. We are developing an interactive textbook version for iPad, Economics – the Illustrated Primer. The current product has the potential to displace the offerings of the large publishing houses, while the Primer could literally revolutionize the way people learn economics. In short, things are going great. I will have significantly more time to work on these projects next year as I won’t be returning to Bennington for 2013-2014.
MR: What should an incoming faculty member know about teaching political economy to Bennington students?
BFP: The lack of a formal progression of classes means that each student will have a different background. You cannot count on students having read the classics in any standard course. This is the price of the flexible plan system. The students will do the assigned readings and write good papers, but they will be limited by what they have seen before entering your course. The plan system provides amazing flexibility for the Bennington students. The process delivers its value by forcing students to repeatedly evaluate what they want to study and why they study it. These questions are often unasked and unanswered in more traditional environments. Unfortunately, the plan system requires an intellectually diverse faculty to function. Bennington would benefit from hiring people capable of bridging the gaps across disciplines. An individual capable of teaching/advising any economics, political science, political economy, mathematics, statistics, computer science, or physics class/plan would seem to be an ideal faculty member at Bennington. Unfortunately, the administration and current faculty disagree and insist on publications as a necessary requirement for employment.
BFP: What do you imagine missing most about Bennington (if anything)?
MR: I will miss the students the most. I generally eat lunch with students in the dining hall because I like to chat with them. This is why I chose to work at a liberal arts college.