Temporary Income Shocks

As a graduate student in 2005, I took macroeconomics from Tyler Cowen. It was a fascinating class, covering not just the sweep of business cycle theories, but also just a good dose of “here is what it means to be an economist.” It was the first class in sequence, and for many incoming PhD students with no economics background (yes, this happens a lot!) it was the first economics class they took.

In that class we read a number of papers by Richard Thaler from his Anomalies series in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. We also read The Winner’s Curse in Bryan Caplan’s micro II course at GMU, the book that collected a lot of those JEP papers (for anyone that thinks the GMU PhD program is just straight Chicago school mixed with libertarianism, think again!).

One of the Thaler papers that always stuck with me was his criticism of the life-cycle theory of savings. That paper opens with a story of Thaler winning $300 in a football betting pool. Thaler, of course, used that income shock to splurge on some temporary indulgence, such as a bottle of champagne or a nice dinner. But a strictly rational agent should just use that extra income to increase their annual lifetime income by an even amount, such as about $20. That’s what the famous life-cycle hypothesis says, which is part of what Modigliani won the Econ Nobel for developing. That was in 1985. The joke is that just 5 years later, Thaler (and presumably other economists) were not personally behaving the way that economic theory says that people behave. (The meta-joke is that Thaler later wins the Econ Nobel too.)

This past week, that theory came full circle for me when Tyler Cowen awarded me an Emergent Ventures prize. It really did come as a shock, both in a real sense and an income sense. I was not expecting this prize in any way, but I am very honored and humbled to receive it. (Side note: this very blog that you are reading also received an EV grant, separate from my personal grant. Hooray for us!). The award was largely for my work on social media and this blog trying to convey good information and data during the pandemic, and to fight bad information.

The question that has been gnawing at me since receiving the award is: what should I do with it? It’s a nice problem to have. I am not complaining in any way. But it’s an especially fascinating question for an economist to think about, and to reconsider how we model human behavior.

The award also intersects with my blog post from last week on “what is income?“. The IRS most definitely considers an award like this to be “income,” and not just any income: it is self-employed income, since it doesn’t come from my employer. If I take it as a cash award, the tax bite will be quite large. However, I could also use the award for some academic purpose: purchasing equipment or software; attending a conference (perhaps one that my University would not normally pay for); or running a small workshop or conference (possibly, in the theme of the award, on how to communicate good information effectively on social media?). In those cases, I might legally avoid some taxes.

I don’t yet know what I want to do with the award. But it’s a really interesting intellectual, professional, and personal challenge to think about. Again, nice problem to have. But thank you again to Tyler, Mercatus, and Emergent Ventures for the honor. And thank you to all my readers out there for making the intellectual journey with me over the past year and a half!