In Conversation with Professor Simon Bowmaker

Courtesy of Simon Bowmaker.

Written by Sanjana Gupta

The Gould Standard sat down with Professor Simon Bowmaker to learn more about his views on work, life, and the future.

Dedicated, motivational, and charismatic – that’s Simon Bowmaker in three words. Although three hundred students take his microeconomics course every fall, Professor Bowmaker makes Paulson Auditorium seem like a regular Stern classroom by learning the names of practically everyone in his lecture. He creates an environment conducive to learning through interaction and exploration, in which students can openly participate. This, along with his digestible way of teaching, has earned him the reputation as being one of the most loved professors among undergraduate Stern students. The Gould Standard sat down with Professor Simon Bowmaker to learn more about his views on work, life, and the future.

Who or what inspired you to join the field of economics?

I took my first course in economics when I was 14 years old, and it was the most exciting subject I’d been exposed to. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I was truly hooked. I had an amazing teacher named Arthur Gisby, from my home city of Sunderland in England, who taught me A-level economics for two years. He is unquestionably the inspiration behind my interest in economics today. I’ll never forget him.  

What would be one economic event that occurred in the past year that you would change?

I would have re-appointed Janet Yellen as the Chair of the Federal Reserve. She had the confidence of the markets and a good track record; she knew the staff and was politically savvy both within the Fed and on the Hill. Plus, she is an outstanding economist.

What emerging business trend are you most excited about?

Online markets. That’s quite exciting because, as an economist, one often thinks about the idea of a missing or incomplete market usually due to information asymmetry or search frictions. Online markets allow us to acquire information and overcome problems of moral hazard and adverse selection. My colleague John Horton has done some very interesting work in this area.

What is one undergraduate experience that has impacted where you are today?

When I was a sophomore, I learned from The Economist that Gary Becker had won the Nobel Prize in Economics for applying microeconomic analysis to areas of life that had previously only been explored by demographers, sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists. I thought it was fascinating that economics could be applied to topics such as discrimination, crime, and the family. I went on to do my PhD on the economics of marriage, a field pioneered by Gary Becker.

What is your prediction for the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics?

I believe that Paul Milgrom, a professor at Stanford University, will be a Nobel Laureate at some stage…whether it is 2018 is another matter!

Are you working on any research right now?

I’m currently working on my book called Economics in the White House: Conversations with Policymakers to get an insight into what’s it like working for the President of the United States. I have interviewed 35 policymakers all the way from the Johnson to the Trump Administrations. Some of these people, including George Shultz, Paul Volcker, and Alan Greenspan, are in their 90s and continue to be active participants in the economic policymaking debate. I have a great deal of admiration for them.  

When teaching introductory microeconomics, how do you break students into the Stern grading guidelines?

The introductory microeconomics course at Stern has been the toughest teaching experience of my career. Many of my freshmen students set themselves very high expectations and find it very difficult to adjust to the idea that they are no longer top of the class. What I tell them is that you can only control the controllables: Focus on your own efforts and your own performance only, because worrying constantly about whether your classmates are going to beat you to a grade A is not helping your cause.   

What does your schedule generally look like?

My day-to-day schedule depends on whether or not I am teaching. On a teaching day, that is my sole focus; nothing else. On a non-teaching day, I try to block out time to work on my book and catch up with colleagues (although I think Mike Waugh probably wishes I didn’t block out this time).

What inspired you to create the ‘Bowmaker’ major? And which course do you enjoy teaching the most?

I created the ‘Bowmaker’ major, as you call it, because I wanted to expose my students to as many fields of applied microeconomics as possible. In terms of which course I enjoy teaching the most, I will answer your question in a slightly different way. In my latest book, one of my favorite questions to ask some of my interviewees is how they would compare and contrast the different Presidents they have worked for. Similarly, one aspect of my elective courses that I particularly enjoy teaching involves this compare and contrast approach. For example, in Sports Economics, I show students how the economic organization of sports leagues is different in Europe than in the United States. In Health Economics, I show students how medical care is produced and financed in a very different fashion in the United States compared to elsewhere. In Transportation Economics, I show students how New York City’s transportation network requires an even greater cooperation of very complex systems of infrastructure relative to other major cities. And in Psychology and Economics, I show students how behavioral economists apply a very different approach to understanding human behavior compared to Gary Becker, who is the inspiration behind Economics of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.                   

Where do you see yourself going from here?

Eventually, I’d like to devote more of my time to writing books, and I’d also like to collaborate with my colleagues on a research paper or two. I don’t wish to be remembered as only a teacher of economics… particularly of the economics of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll!

What is one piece of advice that you would give to Stern undergraduates?

Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.

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