Alicia Mollaun, Professor Joseph Stiglitz and Noel Chan. Photo by Belinda Thompson

Nobel ambitions

03 July 2014

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Sitting discussing ideas and concepts with a Nobel Laureate in economics isn’t an opportunity that comes along often.

However, during his visit to The Australian National University, Professor Joseph Stiglitz sat down with a small group of PhD students from Crawford School of Public Policy and engaged with them about ideas ranging from economic models to financial literacy and the time he spoke in Vietnam’s Opera House.

Asked about his greatest regrets from his impressive body of work, Professor Stiglitz listed two papers featuring theorems where he knew the risk of misinterpretation.

“I wrote a paper explaining how inheritance tax could lead to more consumption. If you had a 100 per cent inheritance tax you’re going to consume everything yourself rather than sharing with future generations,” he said.

“It has been used by the (political) right to say we shouldn’t have any inheritance tax.

“Another was a paper I wrote with Tony Atkinson in 1976 about optimal taxation.

“These are a couple of papers that have been abused; I was aware of the risks when I wrote them.”

In his advice to PhD students, Professor Stiglitz said the key was to be clear about what you were aiming to contribute.

“Choose a (research) question you are interested in and one you think is going to be important to answer,” he said. “It’s not always simple. Sometimes the things that you’re interested in are not all that important and some things that are important it is very difficult to say anything about.

“There is a little bit of a tendency with PhD students to get very involved in methodology, which is probably necessary. You have to show that you can do hard things. Do not confuse the ability to do hard things with the ability to make an important contribution.”

Crawford PhD student Alicia Mollaun said the meeting with Professor Stiglitz was insightful. “I had studied Professor Stiglitz’s work as an undergraduate and Master’s economics student and it was fantastic to discuss the intersection of policy and theory with such an influential economist,” Mollaun said.

“Professor Stiglitz’s advice to the group of PhD students was invaluable, particularly his recommendation to do research in an area that is both personally interesting and policy relevant.”

Fellow PhD student Noel Chan said the conversation with Professor Stiglitz was inspiring.

“He inspires me to think differently and to challenge the contemporary economic way of thinking, government public policy and the role of policy research,” she said.

Crawford School opened the opportunity for emerging economics researchers from other areas of ANU and from the University of Canberra to meet Professor Stiglitz.

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