An Interview with Commencement Speaker Professor Austan Goolsbee

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What was the most memorable graduation for you and why?
Graduating from Yale in 1991. George Bush Senior was the commencement speaker. Protesters were lining the street, the situation was very tense.  It was also my first exposure to the Secret Service.

What is your favorite commencement speech of all time?
The Steve Jobs commencement speech. It was inspiring. Of course, as a data-driven guy, I wonder if Steve Jobs succeeded in-spite of, not because of, the choices he made. (Such as) attending a calligraphy class and dropping out of college.

What do you remember from the commencement speakers at your graduation?
I have no memory from my graduation speeches.

What is the deal with the treadmill below your desk?

I got the idea from (Professor) Moskowitz. I can walk as I work.  If I go more than a 2.5 (24 minute mile pace) I start to get nauseous.


How did your education shape your career? Could you share a few things that you took away from your academic years that that you continue to use?
That in economics, the fundamental question is “compared to what”. When debating a policy the question should not be whether it is a good policy or not, the question should be what is the alternative. (Secondly) the sunk cost fallacy. Even if you have sunk a lot of resources into a project, if on the margin it is costing you, it is time to walk away. When I was moving to Washington (from Hyde Park) I told the broker that I did not care about the loss I was incurring on the sale, I just wanted to get it sold because it was costing me to hold it. On the flip side, if the marginal cost is zero why not do it? [Professor Richard] Thaler believes that 99% of people understand the sunk cost fallacy, I think it is closer to 20%.


What do you feel is the purpose of a commencement speech?
It is mostly a filler. It is designed to make it appear to your families, partners, and (other) loved ones that you were actually doing something.


How do you feel about being voted the funniest celebrity in Washington in 2009?
Again the question is compared to what. Grover Norquist got second place. I was the last to go and before going on stage my wife told me that you no one else has said anything funny so far. It was up to me to salvage the night.

Austan Goolsbee is a Professor of Economics and was a former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for the Obama Administration.