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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30

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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.

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