This month’s Stern Faculty Spotlight features Professor Simon Bowmaker, Clinical Professor of Economics at Stern. His most recent book, When the President Calls: Conversations with Economic Policymakers, features interviews with many of the top economic policymakers in recent U.S. history. He is currently writing a book about the U.S. Federal Reserve. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hi Professor, thanks for agreeing to be our Faculty Spotlight for November. Let’s start off by introducing yourself, where you’re from, and what you teach at NYU.
I’m from a city called Sunderland, which is in northeast England. That’s where I was born and raised, and I’ve been in New York City since 2007. I teach a broad range of applied microeconomics courses at Stern. To the undergraduates, I’m teaching Microeconomics, Sports Economics, Competitive Analysis, and The Making of Economic Policy in the White House. And to the MBA students, I’m teaching Sports Economics, The Making of Economic Policy in the White House, Firms and Markets, and Behavioral Economics.
Could you tell us about your career before coming to Stern and how you ended up here?
I majored in economics as an undergraduate and my plan after doing a master’s degree in economics was then go to work outside of the academic sector as an economist, which I did for about four or five years, working in consulting, banking, and the civil service.
In the fall of 1999, I had the opportunity to teach part-time at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where I was living at the time. That was a life-changing experience—it was the first time I could honestly say I truly enjoyed my job. But the problem I had at the time was I didn’t have a Ph.D. So, I went to the University of St. Andrews to complete one. But I was paying my way through my studies by teaching as well. That included traveling around the United States for a couple of years, teaching on short-term contracts at various places. Best of all, I had the opportunity to come to NYU in the fall of 2007 as a visitor. And within a couple of years that position was made permanent and I’ve been here ever since.
For the classes that you teach, you start each one the same way, by cold calling a few students and asking them how they are doing. Have you done this in every class you taught and how did this practice start?
Funny you’ve spotted that! I think I’ve been doing it for quite some time and there are a couple of reasons why I do it. First and foremost, I like my students and I probably haven’t seen them for a couple of days, or maybe a week, and I’m interested in how they are doing. But I’m also trying to create a relaxed atmosphere. Sometimes I’m teaching classes that are three hours long and I just think if I go in and everything is stuffy from the very beginning, then perhaps that’s not always fostering the best learning environment.
For your 2019 book When the President Calls: Conversations with Economic Policymakers, you interviewed many of the influential U.S. economic policymakers of the last 50 years. Why did you want to write this book and what is something that you learned in the process?
I have a great interest in the working lives of professional economists. I’d written two previous interview-based books: one on how people teach economics (The Heart of Teaching Economics: Lessons from Leading Minds, 2010) and another book on how people do research in economics (The Art and Practice of Economics Research: Lessons from Leading Minds, 2012). So, for the next book, I was interested in interviewing people who work in economic policymaking, specifically for the President.
The thing that surprised me the most was the fact that those who serve in White House economic positions develop what I call an institutional sense of responsibility. I’ll tell you what I mean. I think everyone knows that in this country we suffer from political polarization. But there is a great deal of camaraderie among economic policymakers, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, and they make themselves available to the next person to serve in their roles. For example, I remember speaking to Hank Paulson (Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush) and he was telling me that he would call Jack Lew, who was Treasury Secretary under Barack Obama, if he thought he could say something to Lew that was helpful or useful for his role.
In your book, you ask every policymaker for their opinion on the level of economic literacy in the U.S. and how the economic literacy level of the public affects policy. What are your thoughts on this?
There are a few different ways we can think about this. First and foremost, as an economics professor, I obviously believe it would be a good idea if the voting public had a good grasp of the fundamentals of economics. For example, there is significant misunderstanding of ideas such as the gains from trade, the impact of taxes, and the difference between the national debt and the federal deficit, to name just a few things.
But there is also confusion about the institutions who make economic policy. For example, what does the Federal Reserve do, and importantly, what is the Federal Reserve not able to do? And what can the President of the United States actually do to affect the economy?
If we had better economic literacy, I think it would make voters more aware of the importance of tradeoffs, not only in their own lives, but also in relation to government policy.
Let’s get into some more personal, quick-hitting questions. What is one word that describes you?
What are you reading right now?
I’m writing a new book about the Federal Reserve, and I am reading anything I can about the Fed.
What are your main sources of economic news?
I am addicted to Twitter. I only joined Twitter a couple of years ago (@SimonBowmaker), but I find it absolutely indispensable. Some of the best minds in economics are on Twitter, and I regret that I didn’t join earlier to learn from them.
What is something that you do for fun?
This relates to my home city. I am a fanatical Sunderland A.F.C. supporter, the local soccer team. It’s not always fun to follow them, but that is a big part of my life. Aside from watching Sunderland, I love to listen to jazz and watch cricket.
What is one of your favorite TV shows or movies?
My favorite TV show is Fawlty Towers. It stars John Cleese, and it’s about a hotel in England. They did 12 episodes over two series in 1975 and 1979. It’s a super famous comedy back home and worth a watch if you have a chance.
What is your favorite song?
Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears. It’s from 1985, and I’ve listened to that song zillions of times over the years.
If you could meet anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I’ll give you two people, one living, one dead. The dead person is Miles Davis. The living person is Viv Richards, a great West Indian cricketer. He was my hero as a kid growing up in England.
Photo Credit: Simon Bowmaker