Questions for the SSA professor, health policy expert, and prolific tweeter.
What surprising job have you had in the past?
I have had many jobs, ranging from janitor to electrical engineer. My family can’t quite believe that I keynoted a personal finance conference in Vegas last year.
What would you want to be doing if not teaching?
I hope that I would be working in a nonprofit helping people, the way many of my students do.
What do you hate that everyone else loves?
Fine dining and vacations. If you asked how much I would be willing to pay for the absolute finest meal of my life, I might say $30. The whole concept bores me. And I want other people to take vacations and to leave me alone.
What do you love that everyone else hates?
Cheap hotel rooms along the highway. They have free Wi-Fi and decent breakfast. My wife adds from across the room, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
What was the last book you finished?
Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized. A beautiful and concerning book about the institutional decline of American democracy.
What was the last book you recommended to a friend?
Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. A phenomenal analysis of the Sunbelt-suburban roots of the modern Republican Party.
What was the last book you put down before you finished it?
My own book.
What book—or other work or idea—do you relish teaching?
Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. The book combines analytic rigor with an empathetic humanity in a way I greatly admire. I love teaching that material in my introductory microeconomics class.
What book changed your life?
Theodore White, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure. A memoir by a political journalist. The first book I bought with my own money. This was quite brave, since I had a serious crush on the bookstore cashier in my small town.
What person, alive or dead, would you want to write your life story?
My mom. Failing that, Philip Roth, AM’55.
What’s your least useful talent?
Tell us the best piece of advice you’ve received—or the worst.
When I was a struggling assistant professor, a colleague reminded me of the fundamental equation: (Words per minute) x (Minutes spent writing) = Words on the page.
What advice would you give to a brand-new Maroon?
Be kind. Work hard, and remember: if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
Who was your best teacher, and why?
I have been blessed to have many fine teachers who respected and pushed me: my high school math teacher Bruce Hillyer, my English teacher Mr. Musgrave, my night school professors at Harvard Extension when I changed careers. But I’d have to say that my best teacher was my dad. I was struggling as a teenager to grasp the basic theorems of multivariable calculus. So my dad grabbed a balloon, and filled our bathtub with water. He then provided a virtuoso impromptu explanation in terms of the currents swirling around the incompressible water, and how this differed from the way air squished inside a balloon passes through a hole in the side. He had the engineer’s physical intuition for what the theorems meant for his work. He’s always communicated that there was nothing he’d rather do, no more enjoyable use of his time, than to share these insights with me.
What UChicago classroom moment will you never forget, in three sentences or fewer?
That’s not for me to say. Our work at School of Social Service Administration addresses difficult subjects—addiction, crime, racism, disability and more. The moments when our students challenge and support each other as we confront these difficult subjects—these are the best moments.