One thing I really enjoy about my experience so far at Chicago is the opportunity to connect with people from all over the world — people here come from such diverse backgrounds and are so willing to make connections for students. This expansive network is largely responsible for my research experience at Harvard this summer, which has been great and has really highlighted the variation between different programs.
Robbie Minton ’17 is an undergraduate economics major at the University of Chicago whose interests include price theory and computational game theory. He is spending the summer in Boston, where he is working as an undergraduate research assistant at Harvard University, as well as working on a summer project with University of Chicago Economics professor Casey Mulligan.
You have a wide range of interests besides economics, including English, writing, the classics, and music. How did you decide to major in economics?
That is actually an interesting story. I arrived at UChicago in 2013 thinking I would major in English or classics. I decided to take a course on public policy, taught by Chris Berry, in which I learned some simple, but powerful economic models to study how the preferences of individuals become represented in government. That class really piqued my interest, so I took the famous Econ 200 class, which was a huge math challenge for me, coming from more of an arts background. The course was incredible—it just introduced me to how powerful the field of economics is and how baffling so many elements of our society are without its theories. My new major was finally and solidly decided after Kevin Murphy’s Microeconomics course at Booth. He encouraged us to think outside the boundaries of traditional economics questions. Through the lens of markets, prices, and incentives, we developed frameworks to analyze topics like addiction, education, and health decisions – very interesting questions that are particularly close to the Chicago tradition.
As an undergraduate, it may be tough to narrow down your research interests while you are still gaining experience in a broad set of fields. Thus far, do you have any preference for specific areas of economics?
While my interests are still broad, I think I want to work in applied theory, and price theory is a great example. I just love the idea that, given an example in the real world, for instance drug addiction, we can use a set of models and frameworks to explain people’s behaviors and decisions. Even when I took macroeconomics, I was applying price theory to everything throughout the course!
I’m also doing some more theoretical and computational work with Ben Brooks. [a former research fellow at BFI and new faculty member in the Economics Department] His work on game theory helps us build intuition about how strategic actors make decisions in the presence of incomplete information. For example, a CEO making a decision might want to think about other CEOs’ actions, but the CEOs might differ in their perception of what we term, “the state of the world” (i.e., the promise of future profits, stability of financials, etc.) and have different goals. The equilibrium concept we employ can capture this richness.
Like many economics students, you are not taking the summer off. Tell us about your summer project with Casey Mulligan at UChicago.
Yes, I’m staying pretty busy this summer. I’m working with Casey Mulligan on a project to write a textbook for the PhD Price Theory course. The course is famous; it is the class associated with the Chicago Price Theory experience. I’m going through video lectures from the course and typing detailed lecture notes, putting graphs into readable forms online, and typing out equations. These materials will help Professor Mulligan expand on the lectures for the textbook as well as serve as valuable resources if the course is ever offered online. Working on this project has been an incredible experience that I couldn’t get anywhere else; the tradition of UChicago Price Theory is just so rich. Much of the pioneering work was done here.
You are not actually in Chicago this summer, though. How is Cambridge, and what are you doing there?
The UChicago Price Theory work accounts for part of my summer activities. I am also working on two projects with folks at Harvard, where I am spending the summer. The first project is with [former BFI Research Fellow] Scott Kominers, now a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. We are working on an applied project in market design in which we study patent infringements. With the advent of the software and biotech industries, the number of patents has skyrocketed, making it difficult for companies to track existing patents. The goal of this research is to disincentivize so-called “nuisance lawsuits” in which companies file marginal suits in an effort to extract settlement money. In these cases, the company being sued expects to pay more in litigation costs than settlement costs, so they settle, even when they may have won the case. Our research is trying to discourage this behavior, while maintaining a structure in which litigation for legitimate infringements is supported.
The second project is with Andrei Shleifer, professor of economics at Harvard. We are studying a very interesting theory in psychology and behavioral economics called representativeness, which describes how people tend to overweight the likelihood of some “representative” feature of a population. For instance, when asked what percentage of Irish people have red hair, people tend to answer around 30%. The true percentage is about 10%, but red hair is representative of Irish people, so we tend to overweight that trait. We are applying this theory to understand why markets overreact to the news and tend to have higher variation than other models would predict.
Do you have any plans beyond graduation yet? Are you hoping to start a job or maybe go to graduate school?
My plan right now is to go directly into a PhD program. I will, of course, be applying to UChicago and maybe Harvard. One thing I really enjoy about my experience so far at Chicago is the opportunity to connect with people from all over the world – people here come from such diverse backgrounds and are so willing to make connections for students. This expansive network is largely responsible for my research experience at Harvard this summer, which has been great and has really highlighted the variation between different programs.