'We Don't Face Any Good Options': Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Vernon Smith on the Financial Crisis, Adam Smith's Underrated Insights, and His Journey from Socialist to Libertarian
Gillespie, Nick, Reason
"I REMEMBER THE '30S like it was yesterday" says economist Vernon Smith. And he's not kidding. In 1935, when the future Nobel Prize winner was 7 years old, his family decamped to their Kansas farm to wait out the hard times. "On the farms," Smith explains, "you can eat." His parents only made it to eighth grade, but "they were people who read," and they expected their son to go to college. They got their wish--and then some.
Smith's higher education began with remedial work at a local Quaker college ("I was not a good student in high school," he says) but eventually took him from a Caltech electrical engineering degree to an economics Ph.D. at Harvard. Beginning at Purdue University, and then at the University of Arizona and George Mason University, Smith founded and developed the pioneering field of experimental economics, which studies actual human behavior--a major breakthrough in a discipline obsessed with abstract models. This work culminated in 2002, when Smith was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences "for having established laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis, especially in the study of alternative market mechanisms."
Over that time span, Smith's political views evolved in tandem with his economic insights. He left behind the socialism he learned at his mother's knee for a more libertarian outlook. He says "experimental economics destroyed whatever was left in me of the notion that somehow you could do better than to find institutions that organized this decentralized information and create." Now continuing his lab work at Chapman University, Smith is riding out the second most serious economic crisis of his 84 years in sunny California.
In July, Smith sat down with reason.tv Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie to discuss his ideological journey, how FUR (and perhaps George W. Bush) saved capitalism, why some of Adam Smith's most important intellectual contributions are overlooked, and what experimental economics has to say about the collapse of the housing market.
reason: We're sitting in your office at Chapman University, a beautiful campus in Orange County, California. Tell us about your setup here, what kind of experiments you're running, and what you're hoping to find with them.
Vernon Smith: We're asking some questions that came out of the economic crisis. We started doing asset-trading experiments in the '80s and discovered bubbles, quite unintentionally.
reason: In your experiments, you were able to create bubbles, or did they just pop up?
Smith: They popped up. We thought we would create bubbles, but we never had to.
reason: How does a bubble take place?
Smith: Right now, we don't understand why people get caught up in self-reinforcing …
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Publication information: Article title: 'We Don't Face Any Good Options': Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Vernon Smith on the Financial Crisis, Adam Smith's Underrated Insights, and His Journey from Socialist to Libertarian. Contributors: Gillespie, Nick - Author. Magazine title: Reason. Volume: 43. Issue: 7 Publication date: December 2011. Page number: 44+. © 2009 Reason Foundation. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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