Professor David K. Levine graduated from UCLA in 1977, earning a dual degree of Bachelors in Mathematics and a Masters in Economics. He was enrolled as a UCLA student during high school, but he later studied at Harvard University for a year before coming back to UCLA in his second year and finishing his degrees. He decided to be an economics professor since he was a freshman, because his initial education in economics was poor, as the economic consensus that he was taught seemed to defy common sense. He enrolled at UCLA as a math major while still taking economics courses because he believed a rigorous math background would help him conduct economic research. Eventually, he enrolled in graduate courses in economics as well after being convinced by his life-long mentor Professor Jack Hirshleifer. Professor Levine felt that there was major space for improvement in the field. Eventually, his motivation to improve economics and impart knowledge to others caused him to enter academia which led him to where he is today.
Although UCLA has a reputation for being a large and impersonal place, professor Levine’s experience here was quite the opposite. During his time as a student, there were very few math majors so it was easy to establish contact with other math majors and the faculty. Professor Levine was also given a key to the Math Library, which was his favorite place on campus and where he would often be found solving mathematical problems. Likewise, he had the opportunity to interact and learn from other economics graduate students when pursuing his dual degree. Crucially, he was also a research assistant to Professor Jack Hirshleifer, a professor emeritus of economics at UCLA and received lifelong mentorship from him. For Professor Levine, UCLA offered a great amount of resources that helped him become successful after graduation.
Professor Levine has garnered a long list of achievements throughout his career: He currently serves as joint chair for Department of Economics and Robert Schuman Center at the European University Institute. He is also the John H. Biggs Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis. But he never kept such achievements in mind as he pursued economics; his motivation was always to push the frontier of this field and to advance the areas of economics he was most interested in.
When asked about the secret to conducting successful research, Professor Levine contends that it is necessary to come up with different explanations for economic phenomena and to determine their feasibility. At the heart of it, he states that common sense is absolutely necessary when conducting economic research. To this point, he brings up the example of intellectual property. The Disney Corporation controls copyrights in the US. Interestingly enough, the costs to the public due to copyrights are much greater than their benefits to Disney. Despite this, the reason why the public does not scrutinize Disney is because the cost per person is trivial. Thus, the public has little incentive to lobby against Disney. However, Professor Levine adds that this conclusion might not be so straight forward without a rigorous mathematical model to back it. He states that the general consensus amongst economists is to make lobbying more expensive or illegal to prevent Disney from lobbying extensively for maintaining control over copyrights. However, from his research alongside Professor Michele Boldrin, they concluded that lobbying should instead be made cheaper. They argue that Disney is able to lobby extensively because Disney makes it harder for the public to lobby against them. Making lobbying cheaper could therefore incentivize the public to actually take action. He drives the point that economic theory forces economists to look at the whole picture instead of erroneously looking at just a single piece of it.
Although our interview did not delve in depth into Professor Levine’s research (Readers can learn more about him and his research at http://levine.sscnet.ucla.edu/david.htm) we did talk about two of his books. The first book, Against Intellectual Monopoly, was co-written with Michele Boldrin. Together, they argued against intellectual property like copyrights and patents, for stifling innovation and competition instead of encouraging it. In the mid 90’s, economists typically viewed intellectual property as a necessary evil because, although it gave rise to monopolies, it was required to innovate. Before professors Levine and Boldrin set out to research innovation, they too shared the same view. However, after building general equilibrium models to study innovations across the economy, they soon found that this view was false. After spending years researching various empirical studies, they concluded that the importance of intellectual property in driving innovation was overstated, proving that even without monopoly power, there was incentive to innovate. The second book, Is Behavioural Economics Doomed?, addresses the backlash against mainstream economics for failing to consider the irrationality of human nature and the rising influence of behavioural economics. Having worked in the field of behavioral economics over the years, Professor Levine noted that there were many good and bad economic theories established in the discipline. His book presents a grim outlook on the field of behavioral economics, not because the discipline is failing but because he recognizes that eventually the good theories of behavioral economics will be incorporated into mainstream economics while the bad theories will be discarded.
Lastly, we asked him to give current undergraduate students some advice. His advice was simple: take full advantage of the resources that UCLA offers before graduating. There is always time to specialize later on so students should feel free to take classes that appeal to them even if it is not relevant to their major. Drawing from personal experience, despite pursuing a dual degree in math and economics, professor Levine took a wide variety of classes ranging from history to Russian. That’s the beauty of UCLA’s holistic curriculum: the opportunity to learn subjects that you wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to learn upon graduating. Remember to make the most of your education.
By Ng Xiang Yang, with Adithya Kumar and Charles Qian.