The Contributions of William T. Dickens
By Bryan Caplan
Tyler and Arnold have written engaging retrospectives on their Ph.D. cohorts at Harvard and MIT. But I’d rather discuss the contributions of Arnold’s classmate – and my undergraduate Econ 1 professor – William T. Dickens. Arnold’s right to say:
Bill Dickens is known for his work on the Flynn effect and for attending
my co-blogger’s Capla-Con festival for game nerds.* I think Bill is at
Northeastern in Boston.
But this just scratches the surface of Bill’s many contributions. He actually has major publications in at least five different areas.
1. Bill is an early pioneer of theoretical behavioral economics, most famously in his “The Economics of Cognitive Dissonance” (AER 1982), co-authored with George Akerlof. In the Akerlof-Dickens model, fully rational agents deliberately choose to be irrational in order to avoid the unpleasant emotion of “cognitive dissonance.” This model was a major influence on The Myth of the Rational Voter and my notion of rational irrationality.
2. Bill did cutting-edge work on labor market segmentation and inter-industry wage differentials. Previous researchers argued that, holding labor quality constant, there really are “good jobs” and “bad jobs.” Critics objected that this might just reflect compensating differentials. Bill emphasizes that in “good industries,” even secretaries and janitors seem to get an unearned premium. If you’re tempted to dismiss this idea, consider the fact that business schools pay psychologists, sociologists, and economists comparable wages despite their disparate outside options.
3. Bill spear-headed a series of papers (often co-authored with George Akerlof and George Perry) arguing that, due to nominal wage rigidity, there is a long-run inflation-unemployment trade-off at low inflation rates. It’s hard to deny that the macroeconomics of 2008-2012 has powerfully vindicated their position. I once persuaded Bill Dickens and Scott Sumner to privately debate over email for me, and I like to think that their exchange (plus a pre-Capla-Con 2011 grilling by GMU bloggers) influenced this.
4. Together with James Flynn, Bill has an influential model showing that high IQ heritability estimates at any point in time are compatible with large environmentally-driven IQ changes over time. Fade-out and social interaction effects play a key role.
5. Together with James Flynn, Bill has written the most powerful and fair-minded critique of the view that genes are an important source of racial intelligence differences. See especially their critique of Jensen and Rushton.
I should add that Bill is even more impressive in person than he is on paper. He’s my favorite liberal, bar none. He’s extremely knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, enthusiastically curious, coolly logical, and generous to his opponents. After his Econ 1 lectures – taught to a massive audience of 800 students – I often came up to the podium to challenge him. He always had time for me, and never dismissed me – though in retrospect he probably had good reason to do so. Bill and I frequently disagree (see e.g. our exchange on educational signaling), but he never makes me feel like I’m banging my head against a wall. My rule of thumb: If I’d be embarrassed to present an argument to Bill, I probably shouldn’t be making it.
* Capla-Con 2012 is happening on August 4-5. Email me for an invitation. You may even end up gaming with Bill.