Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30

microsoft-research

A Microsoft Research office. (Photo: miss_rogue/Wikimedia Commons)

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Quadratic Voting Inventor Who Wants to Refit the Social Machine

• April 11, 2014 • 6:00 AM

A Microsoft Research office. (Photo: miss_rogue/Wikimedia Commons)

For the month of April we’re profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.

E. Glen Weyl, 28, Economics

“I’ve always been very politically active,” Glen Weyl says. When he was seven years old, he went door to door for Bill Clinton. Under the influence of a British cousin, he was a socialist by sixth grade. “But I started becoming a skater and doing very poorly in my classes, so for better or worse, my father gave me Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to read. On the worse side, it turned me into a total jerk for about three years and totally alienated me from my middle-school classmates. On the better side, I started getting good grades and read about 10,000 pages of economics before finishing middle school.”

At 13, around the time he moved from his childhood home in the San Francisco Bay Area to a boarding school in Connecticut, he wrote a fan letter to Milton Friedman. “He very kindly replied,” Weyl says, “and I responded by inviting him over for tea.” Weyl never did get to meet the Nobelist—he died just as Weyl was becoming an economist. “While I have come to disagree with him on many if not most issues of social policy,” Weyl says, “he is probably the thinker that has most shaped me.”

Economics wasn’t always the obvious choice for Weyl, though: “During high school, my interests drifted and I entered college uncertain between pursuing physics, a career in politics, or going into finance.” His freshman year at Princeton, he pointed out a mistake on a statistics exam to his professor, Elie Tamer. Tamer responded by suggesting that Weyl take a graduate-level economics class. He did, and that’s how he met professor José Scheinkman.

(Photo: Glen Weyl)

(Photo: Glen Weyl)

The next summer, Weyl worked for a hedge fund in Manhattan. He helped facilitate a trade that made his firm a lot of money but, in Weyl’s view, “took advantage of and contributed to some very harmful things that were going on in the market.” He asked his boss what service they were providing for which they were being so heftily rewarded. His boss replied: “Ours is not to question why, our is just to do and die.”

That night, Weyl had dinner with Scheinkman at the best Indian restaurant in New York. “He told me that if I were an economist, my job would be to question why,” Weyl says. “That was enough to sell me, because I knew that whatever job I was doing, I would ask these types of questions, and it was better to pursue a career where that would be encouraged rather than an impediment.”

Today, Weyl says Scheinkman is “the most important mentor of my life.” After Weyl committed to economics, Scheinkman guided him through the grueling process of quickly finishing his dissertation (which consisted of three essays about industrial organization and economic methodology) and, in Weyl’s words, “showed me the beauty of studying the world through the lens of economics.”

In 2007, Weyl graduated as the valedictorian of his undergraduate class at Princeton. Just a year later, he finished his Ph.D., also in economics, also at Princeton. He was elected to Harvard’s Society of Fellows, where he stayed until 2011, when he started as a professor at the University of Chicago. He likes teaching and is good at it, but he plans to devote the bulk of his professional life to developing a system he invented called quadratic voting (QV).

Quadratic voting, he explains, is “a better way to make collective decisions that avoids the tyranny of the majority by allowing people to express how strongly they feel about an issue rather than just whether they are in favor of it or opposed to it.” By way of example, he says that QV would have allowed the LGBT community to overrule the majority support of California’s Proposition 8 because the issue of same-sex marriage is much more important to them than to everyone else. “I have come to believe it could solve a range of chronic social problems and I am dedicated to developing it along many dimensions in the coming years,” Weyl says.

His idea is often met with skepticism. “Many people believe radical academic proposals like QV are dreams with no relevance to practical policymaking,” Weyl says. “While this may be true for a good while, I believe that in the long term, ideas shape the world. In the 17th century, no one took democracy seriously as a way to organize society. Three centuries later, most people in the world thought it was the only acceptable form of social organization. When John Maynard Keynes wrote about stimulative fiscal policy in the 1930s, Roosevelt laughed him out of the Oval Office but by the 1970s, even Richard Nixon said he was a Keynesian.”

Weyl hopes that the Internet and other information technologies will speed the progression and acceptance of new ideas, and that in his lifetime he’ll get to see some of the proposals economists are now putting forth “refit the social machine,” as he puts it. “And even if I do not,” he adds, “just the ability to imagine how society could work better is a profound aesthetic satisfaction for me.”

In February, Weyl found out that he won a Sloan Research Fellowship, awarded “to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars.” In the prize’s 59-year history, Weyl is the second youngest social scientist to receive it, after Raj Chetty.

Even though his CV scrolls with more than 30 grants and honors, Weyl says that the single thing he’s proudest of in life is his relationship with his wife, Alisha Holland. He met her in a Latin American politics class at Princeton.

“My parents had a troubled marriage,” he says, “and I grew up knowing that the person I found to love had to be someone with whom I could truly share life as a partner. Alisha has been that and so much more to me. More than anyone or anything else in my life, she has given me the things I most needed: the ability and desire to empathize with others, a love for arts and dancing, an eye for the cultural context around me, and an appreciation for being present.”

Holland, also a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, recently received a tenure-track offer to be a political science professor at Princeton beginning in 2016. “This was simply too good of an opportunity for me to let her pass up,” Weyl says. “I wasn’t willing to just let her go to the East Coast while I stay in Chicago.”

To stay near his wife, Weyl will go on leave from the University of Chicago and join Microsoft Research, starting this July. At Microsoft, Weyl says, “We have complete academic freedom to pursue the same things we would at a university but free of teaching obligations and with access to Microsoft’s incredible data.” After a two-year stint there, he hopes to join Holland in becoming a professor at their alma mater.

Looking back over his young but prolific career, Weyl starts to feel regret over having missed out on typical high school and college stuff, like parties and sports. “After I rushed through college and grad school, I realized what I had left behind and have been struggling to catch up ever since,” he says. “While I love and am devoted to the life of the mind, I have come to learn that social science is only sensible when it is grounded in live human experience. I hope that in the coming years I continue to have the opportunity to become a richer, fuller person, though every year I learn how little of the human experience any one person can ever hope to know in this short life.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.

Avital Andrews
Avital Andrews writes about thought leaders, environmental issues, food, and travel. She also reports for Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @avitalb.

More From Avital Andrews

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.