Did you file your taxes yet? Red Letter Daze commemorates the day people dread by interviewing Prof. Daniel Benjamin, economics, for this week's 10 on 10.
1. Since income taxes are due the day this issue comes out and since you’re an economist, you seem like a good person to ask — when did you file your income taxes? Or when will you file them?
D.B.: I am hoping to file within the next couple of days before April 15.
2. You study economics and psychology, so maybe you can shed some light on why it is that people tend to procrastinate on their taxes?
D.B.: Well, yeah, actually it’s called behavioral economics. The simple answer is that [income taxes] are way too complicated. The more complicated answer is that ... people always have a tendency to indulge in immediate gratification and taxes are pretty boring and annoying to work on, so it always feels like a better idea to watch that TV show or movie or do something else that’s more pleasant in the moment and do those taxes tomorrow. ... The problem is that tomorrow comes around and it again feels like a good idea to surf the internet or YouTube ... and do your taxes tomorrow but when you keep doing that you end up doing your taxes on April 15.
3. You studied at Harvard before Cornell, right? So, Harvard vs. Cornell — whose economics studies are better?
D.B.: I did my Ph.D. at Harvard but I actually did my postdoc at University of Michigan.
Daze: Okay, so then add Michigan into that comparison if you’d like.
D.B.: It doesn’t matter what the schools are in the comparison — obviously Cornell’s [economics program] is the best.
4. What got you interested in economics?
D.B.: I was interested in everything when I was in high school and ... economics seemed like a great way to combine science, math and history all into one field and also to make the world a better place at the same time.
5. Why do you say that economics makes the world a better place?
D.B.: Fundamentally economics is about the science of public policy so economics is about what public policies are going to make society as a whole as well off as possible. So, when I started to study economics I realized early on that there were so many amazing lessons from economics about the kinds of public policies we ought to have, that if I did my part [by] learning about economics and teaching others and influencing policymakers to implement sensible policies the world would be a lot better off.
6. Which paper that you have been credited with writing or contributing to best reflects your theories on economics?
D.B.: That’s a tough question because my work is all over the place and I think that my interests are very broad and the fact that my work is all over the place is, I think, very representative of me. Let me tell you about one paper that might be of particular interest to your readers, because it's a paper I’m collaborating on with a current undergraduate student. The paper is about the effect of religious identity on economic behavior. You may know that there are many theories in the social sciences going back at least to Max Weber's famous hypothesis that Protestantism leads to high work ethic and that in turn leads to high economic growth. Going back at least to the work of Weber there were many theories in the social sciences about the effect of religion on economic behavior and in this paper we try to test those hypotheses.
In our study we use priming, which is [a way of] making people’s religious identities more salient to them. We randomly assigned half of the experimental subjects — all of the subjects were Cornell undergrads — to a treatment where we made religion salient by having them unscramble sentences that had religious words in them. The other half we did not make religion salient. We then looked at their subsequent economic behavior — things like their willingness to delay gratification, their willingness to take risk ... [and] their altruism and we systematically tested the hypotheses. I should mention the student’s name is Geoffrey Fisher [’10]. [The paper] is not published yet but we finished it and we'll probably be submitting it to a journal this week but as of now it is available on my website.
7. If you could change the design of U.S. currency what would the new design be?
D.B.: I’d make it red, white and blue instead of green and I’d make it all electronic, with no paper. I don’t know how those are consistent with each other but they’re both good ideas.
8. If you could have any superpower what would it be?
D.B.: Not needing to sleep.
9. If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only bring three books with you, what books would you bring?
D.B.: I’d bring Foundations of Economic Analysis by Paul Samuelson, The Principles of Psychology by William James and a blank notebook so that I could do research. Also, I’d make sure that all three books were made out of food.
10. If you weren’t a professor what would you be?
D.B.: My alternative careers would be politician, physicist or Batman. RLD