John Bonin is the Chester D. Hubbard Professor of Economics and Social Science and the former editor of the Comparative Economics Journal. The Argus sat down with Bonin to ask him what’s on his bookshelf.
The Argus: What is currently on your bookshelf?
John Bonin: “Sextants of Beijing,” by Joana Wally-Cohen. It talks about the history of early China and looks at how Western culture wrongly thinks they invented everything. Everybody knows about the gunpowder issue. It’s very interesting because it talks about…how China, even back in the Qin dynasty (2,300 years ago) was open to the world. People in my generation, and probably yours too, think that China only opened up in the 1970s. It turns out ancient China had a lot of exposure to the world, contrary to popular belief. China only became much more isolationist in Mao Zedong’s time.
A: You’ll be teaching a course on China’s economic transformation this spring [ECON 263]. How would you explain its content to someone who doesn’t have a strong background in economics?
JB: [The course] takes a historical and institutional look at the three-decade period when China went through an amazing spurt in development and growth. This was unprecedented in history. Never has any country had such precipitous increase in GDP per capita, and nothing has even come close. It was a time when the way of doing things was considerably different. Deng Xiaoping would say, “Cross the river by groping for stones,” to [mean] “Experiment with things, see what works and go forward with things that do and stop those that don’t.” That’s the underlying theme through much of that period and continues today after he passed. Look at what China has been doing in environmental controls. They set up various types of experimental solutions in different parts of the country. Chinese economic policy has a lot of learning by doing. There really isn’t a blueprint one can follow.
A: Could you tell me more about the decade you spent as an editor for the Journal of Comparative Economics?
JB: In the 1970s, there was a real disconnect between the “old guard” who were telling narratives and the younger people who were beginning to develop the databases to be able to use more sophisticated empirical techniques. Those of us in training were doing more modern economics with empirical and theoretical work. It was hard for us to find a home for our work. If we tried to publish in big journals like the American Economic Review (AER), people would say our stuff wasn’t of enough general interest. I was fortunate enough early in my career to get a paper in AER because it helped a lot in getting tenure here, but those were hard sells.
I’m an applied theorist. I don’t make path-breaking discoveries in economic theory. I take extant economics theory and apply it to problems. I remember that we had a meeting every year over the Christmas holidays. I was eating lunch with people in the Association of Comparative Economics and someone asked me what I did, so I told him I was developing a theoretical method in what was going on in Soviet firms at the time. He said, “You can’t do that, it doesn’t make any sense.” Ultimately, it got published in the AER, so I guess I could do it. It was an exciting time in the discipline, but there was tension because we didn’t have a publication outlet, so this professor at Yale started the journal. The journal was designed to become a publication outlet for the people doing this kind of work. Without that publication, my colleagues and I probably never would have gotten tenure.
A: What led you to become an economics professor at Wesleyan?
JB: I went to Boston College for my bachelor’s degree and started off as a math major because my uncle told me, “If you study math, you can do anything.” In my second year, I hit a course called Abstract Algebra and realized that I didn’t have a mathematician’s brain. At the same time, I was taking an elective on introductory economics. When the teacher realized we were all math and science majors, he said, “Oh, we’re gonna have fun.” I learned economics the way you’re learning it, with calculus, which was very unusual at the time and still is, by the way. In my fourth year of grad school, I was the one person chosen to teach the undergrad program. I wasn’t just a TA. I designed the syllabus. Nobody oversaw my teaching. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is really my love again.”
The Christmas after I had just gotten married, my wife and I went to Quebec to be with her family for Christmas. There was a huge snowstorm and I couldn’t fly out to get back for my job interviews. I get back to Rochester thinking, “What am I supposed to do?” when I get a phone call from Wesleyan asking me to come down and interview for the job. They made me a job offer before I could even pursue the other connections.
This has been my 47th year. Looking back on it, I really think of how lucky I was with how it worked out because I couldn’t be at a better place. It’s allowed me to do what I love: teaching. It’s also allowed me to have an exciting professional career.
Last Wednesday, a few of my former students visited. One of them, Dana Louie [’15], co-wrote a paper with me. I was convincing all of them to get PhDs because this is a great life. I mean, you can’t imagine a situation where you get to do all the cool things you get to do in this job.
A: What is the most memorable lecture you’ve ever given?
JB: The most excited I’ve ever been after a lecture was one I gave in Beijing to a group of master’s students, and actually my wife was in the audience because she had come on the trip with me. Justin Lin, who subsequently became the Chief Economist at the World Bank, had developed this program himself and was trying to get these students acclimated to the way research is done in the West so that they could publish in our journals. So I gave an hour lecture, and they kept me for another two hours with questions, and the level of excitement in that room was just stimulating. So it wasn’t necessarily what I said, it was what they wanted to get.
And that’s true every day. When I walk into [my] classroom and it’s 8:20 a.m. in the morning and when you guys respond to me, that really stimulates me. And that’s important, the give and take in a lecture. It has less to do with the actual content of the lecture and more to do with when you see how people, in their faces, that they’re learning. That’s exciting.
A: You obviously don’t hesitate to tell your Econ 110 students that they should become economics majors. If there was one thing you would tell them to never forget from your class, what would it be?
JB: It would be how to develop a step-by-step logical argument to deduce outcomes from the chaos of the world and impose a structure on it. It’s the framework of thinking. It’s no particular topic. I could have said opportunity cost. I could have said themes; in fact, your textbook has 10. It’s the framework and the perspective that an economist brings to the table that’s most important. What I try to do, even in the introductory course with the simple tools that we use, is train that way of thinking. Mind you, we left out some things that may be important. For example, I made a big pitch for free trade, something most economists do, but there is a downside for a subgroup of people in free trade. You have to recognize it and incorporate it in the policies you make. If you don’t, you end up with this backlash, something that’s happening in some parts of the world, even in the U.S., that tends to become more isolationist and protectionist. That’s a backlash because there are enough ordinary people who said that “the Poles are taking our jobs.”
A: I noticed you always end Friday lectures with a burning question. I particularly enjoyed the repurposed Winston Churchill quote, “It has been said that the free market is the worst form of economy except all others that have been tried.” How important do you think is it for you to leave your students with that thought?
JB: Some of what we do in class is rather pedantic, what I call “slugging through the stuff you gotta slug through.” It’s not all that exciting, so I try always to leave you with a “Here’s why we did it.” Don’t go home over the weekend and think, “Oh crap, I have to calculate elasticity and stuff like that. Why do we even do it?” And so if I can leave you with something a bit more provocative and a bit open-ended to whet your appetite…. That’s my pedagogical way of trying to get you excited for economics.