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Tales of a productive man

Filed in Profiles ,Research News
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A few weeks ago, Lionel Page and your Decision Science News editor had Bruno Frey come to speak at the Economics of Behaviour and Decision Making series in London. Realizing that it is not every day someone of such stature comes to town, we decided to profiter (as French people such as Lionel say) and interview the man.

Dan Goldstein – You have been incredibly productive in your career, someone with 600 publications of various kinds and 18 books. You got your habilitation in 1969. So I’m just wondering, what are some of your secrets for being able to produce so much? When do you write? What do you not do that other people are doing? We all have the same number of hours in a year.

Bruno Frey – I think first of all I like to write, I like to do research. I like to find new topics. I walk through life always seeing things which might interest me. It might take a long time until something concrete comes out. Then I make my first sketch of what would be a problem. It takes months and months and when I fly or take the train, I keep thinking about it.

I do various things at the same time. So for instance now, the very newest thing I am working on is World Heritage. Who comes on the list? What site comes on the list? Is it perhaps unproductive to do that? All the funds go into the monuments on the list and it is possible the rest of culture loses. That’s one of the questions.

I also worked on the assassination of politicians. That’s an interesting topic too and almost no economists have worked on that. I mean physical assassination. One kind of assassination is physical–in some languages we call it Attentat, but the word doesn’t exist in English, but I want to introduce it. In English you always have to say an attempted or successful assassination and I want to cover both. I want to find the determinants of who is attacked, and the corresponding effort to protect.

I also do research on awards: orders and decorations and things like that. In England it’s of course very, very important, but in America, too. Americans have a huge amount of awards, you know The Best Teacher of the University or the month. Its incredible how it’s exploded.

DG – What do you think about the effect of the Nobel Prize on the field of Economics?

BF – On the individuals it’s rather negative. Afterwards, they’re no longer so productive …

Lionel Page – Is there evidence of that?

BF – Yes, yes, yes, there is some evidence of course, people differ but on average and there is a very nice paper on managers who were appointed Managers of the Year. Afterwards they performed much worse, because they want to write a book and do all kinds of things not related to their firm. So I look at awards, they are one of the incentives besides monitoring incentives. Then of course I try to do research on happiness.

DG – My question about the Nobel was about the field of Economics. So Economics is undeniably a very successful field. You go to almost every University, they’ll have an economics department, or whereas a less successful fields often lack departments. Economics faculty tend to be well paid. Universities seem to put a lot of resources in to get the best economists because it’s a signal of the overall quality of the university. A neighbouring field like Sociology may not get the same kind of respect. Do you think that has anything to do with the Nobel, or do you think it’s just about the importance of Economics as a subject?

BF – No, it has to do with the Nobel, and that is very funny story, why the Nobel is being awarded to economists and why not to sociologists. I think it was more or less one or two persons, and after all it’s financed by the Central Bank. Of course economists have a closer connection to the Central Bank people in Sweden than the Sociologists do.

I think it has raised the prestige of economics tremendously. I do not think that it has to do with the importance of economics as a discipline, because I am afraid we have problems there, but my discipline does not want to see the problem. It is the case that professional economists at universities and business schools are no longer very much in the centre of political debate. A Keynes or a Lord Robbins, etc., they were in the centre. Of course there are still some exceptions, but in general now economists working in banks (or finance people working in banks) are asked “what is the interest rate likely to be in the next month”, “how is inflation going,” etc.?

To be continued