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Q&A with Professor Mark Witte


Q&A with Professor Mark Witte


How long have you been at Northwestern?

Witte: I've been teaching here since 1987 (I think!) 


How many students do you think you have advised over the years?

Witte: Hmm...suppose it's been like 30 years x 300 students per year? 9,000?

How has your role changed over the years?

Witte: The importance of stuff written on paper has evaporated, and students are much more informed and forward-looking than they used to be.

How has the department changed?

Witte: Tenure track faculty are much less likely to teach more than one class that an undergraduate student would take. 


How have students changed?

Witte: More likely to have multiple majors (and now also minors, that didn't used to be a thing at Northwestern).


What is the biggest challenge the department faces?

Witte: Staying in the top rank of departments. It's about running as hard as we can to keep up.

What is the best aspect of our department/your job?

Witte: I learn a lot from brilliant students and colleagues (faculty and staff!).

What is the most rewarding thing about working at NU?

Witte: Just that above.

What is your favorite TV show and movie?

Witte: The Simpsons and Le Retour de Martin Guerre.

What is your favorite book and podcast?

Witte: Lord of the Rings and Fresh Air with Terrie Gross.

What are your hobbies?

Witte: Running, economics.

What are your thoughts regarding current economic policy or current events?

Witte: As economists, we spend a lot of time thinking about optimal policies to counteract market failures.  A classic example is Pigou's tax to match an externality with a financial cost equal to the social cost it creates, thereby preventing society from producing something for which the value is less than the total social cost. In this sort of analysis, we are making an attempt to maximize some measure of social welfare. However, as policymakers, we have the Hayek Knowledge Problem, in that we don't really know what's going on inside of people's heads. One way we try to get at that is through voting mechanisms, where we hope that going with what a majority of voters prefer would be better for the total happiness of the population. However, it could well be a situation where those voting in the majority have a slight preference for their desired outcome over the alternative, while those in the minority who favor the alternative are much, much worse off with what the majority prefers. More generally, a finding from many voting models is that the preference of the pivotal voter tends to be well served, while those of everyone else much less so. As such, under a majority rule voting system, we are using the preferences of the pivotal voter as a proxy for what is good for society. That's going to be imperfect by many metrics, but particularly so if the voting mechanism is set so that the pivotal voter may be fairly far removed in preference space from the median voter in society.


The U.S. system of government has a remarkable array of choke points, super-majority requirements, and disproportionate weightings to various groups of voters that makes doing policy extremely difficult, and cause the results to often be far from what objective observers would consider optimal. One problem is the U.S. Senate where Wyoming and California have equal voting weight, and where, through the filibuster, senators that represent about 30% of the electorate can block something favored by the other 70%. Another is the state-level winner-take-all Electoral College. These can effectively set the pivotal voter to be very extreme, and more likely to be captured by well-funded rent-seeking special interests. Until we fix the problems with our social choice mechanisms, it's hard to imagine that we can get our economic policies right.