Interview with Jonathan Levin

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on May 31, 2011

Jonathan Levin is a Professor in the Department of Economics at Stanford University. In April of 2011, he received the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded by the American Economic Association to American economists under the age of 40 who have made important contribution to their field. The AEA recognized Levin’s influential research on the organization and design of markets, the economics of contracting, subprime lending, and on empirical methods of studying imperfect competition. The organization describes Levin’s work as “methodologically broad” noting that it “often combines a sophisticated grasp of economic theory with careful empirical analysis.”

Levin has taught at Stanford University since 2000. He has written a number of papers of particular interest to those who follow technology policy, including “Patent Oppositions,” coauthored with his father Richard Levin, and “Winning Play in Spectrum Auctions,” coauthored with Jeremy Bulow and Paul Milgrom.

TAP caught up with Professor Levin in May, while he was in the thick of grading exams, and he kindly granted us an interview.

TAP Staff: Your research encompasses an array of topics, such as the dynamics of spectrum auctions and intellectual property. What common themes or interests run through these different subject areas to bring them together in your work?


Professor Levin: The great economist George Stigler once began a book about industrial organization (my field) by saying the field encompassed all of applied economics. I figure that gives me license to work on a lot of different things! When I started in graduate school, I wanted to be an economic theorist. In my dissertation I used game theory to study "relational contracting" - the idea that trust and goodwill can substitute for legal institutions in enforcing contracts. Then I got interested in auctions, which is an area of economics that has a beautiful mathematical theory and a highly practical bent. My research since then has ranged into various topics, but I tend to gravitate toward problems that combine interesting economic theory with practical applied questions or empirical evidence.

TAP Staff: What problems or topics are you presently most interested in?

Professor Levin: I'm really interested right now in the impact of the internet and new information technologies. In one project I'm working on, we've been working with eBay data to find retailers who are running experiments with their prices or sales mechanisms or product offerings, and then seeing what we can learn about consumer behavior by aggregating the results of hundreds of thousands of different retailer experiments. I think the incredibly rich data being captured by firms these days is going to have a huge effect on economic research if we can figure out how to use it effectively, so I've been thinking a lot about that.

TAP Staff: What are some applications of your work for policy, business, or day-to-day life?

Professor Levin: The field of market design, which has been one of my main research areas, has been very successful in suggesting practical economic mechanisms to solve all kinds of real-world problems. One problem that I worked on a few years ago was to help design rules for an "Advanced Market Commitment" for pneumococcal vaccine. That program is now running and developing countries are using it to purchase vaccines. One of the papers I wrote as part of the Toulouse Network was about strategies for firms bidding in large-scale auctions for radio spectrum - we pointed out that in many auctions, it has been possible to forecast the closing prices very early in the auction, a big advantage if you're a bidder! I think I've done better researching policy and business than day-to-day life although I sometimes get emails asking about application strategies for college early admission programs.

TAP Staff: What are your views on the current proposals for patent reform now being put forward on the Hill?

Professor Levin: I haven't been following the latest twists and turns. One reform I argued for in a paper with my father from a few years ago was that the US adopt a post-grant patent challenge system. The idea was that it might reduce litigation costs. That has been a component of some of the bills Congress has considered in recent years.

TAP Staff:  And now for a few fun questions. Twitter? Facebook? Linked-In?

Professor Levin: Definitely less than the average Palo Alto resident.

TAP Staff: Kindle, Nook, or paper books?

Professor Levin: Mostly paper. Goodnight Moon isn't the same on a screen.

TAP Staff: Newspapers or newsfeed?

Professor Levin: Newspapers.

TAP thanks Professor Levin for taking the time to consider our questions, and wishes him success in his future research endeavors.