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

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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