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Faculty Spotlight Interview: Art Carden

January 10, 2011

Art Carden is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, a weekly columnist for Forbes.com, and a regular contributor to the Mises Economics Blog. He is also an Adjunct Fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, a member of the Mises Institute’s Adjunct Faculty, and a member of the Board of Scholars of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. He has taught at Institute for Humane Studies Summer Seminars since 2008 and taught at Mises University in 2009. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research in Summer 2008 and 2009, and he was a graduate fellow at the Mises Institute in 2003. His areas of interest include Southern economic history, development economics, and the impact of Walmart. His research has appeared in the Journal of Urban Economics, Public Choice, Contemporary Economic Policy, Business and Politics, Economic Affairs, the Review of Austrian Economics, the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, and numerous other outlets.


What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
My wife and I have two kids in diapers, so there isn’t really much in the way of “free time.” Still, I enjoy reading, writing, good food, and watching college football (the latter is a habit I’m trying to break). I started studying karate when I came to Rhodes, and while I’ve earned a red belt I haven’t been able to continue my training since the kids came along. I hope to earn my black belt by the end of Spring semester, though. I try off-and-on to become a semi-sort-of-serious runner, and I’ve run a few 5ks. I also do some side writing on personal productivity and have had a series of columns published at Lifehack.org and in Productive! magazine. I’m working on expanding this in collaborative projects with the Institute for Humane Studies and the Womack Company.

What drew you to the Austrian school and to the Ludwig von Mises Institute?
One of my professors at the University of Alabama knew of my libertarian leanings and suggested I attend Mises University. I couldn’t because I was in the marching band in college, but I did a bit of reading on my own and attended the 2001 Austrian Scholars’ Conference. When I got to Washington University in Saint Louis for graduate school, I saw that one of the research centers on campus had cleaned out its library and had left a ton of books in the mailroom for anyone who wanted them. I was able to get Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics, Gerald O’Driscoll’s Economics as a Coordination Problem, and Ludwig Lachmann’s Capital, Expectations, and the Market Process. I printed Human Action off of mises.org chapter-by-chapter and read it on my walks to and from school and in my spare time. I finally went to the Rothbard Graduate Seminar and Mises University in 2002. I find that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it, so I taught a summer course at Wash U in 2003 called “Explorations in Austrian Economics.” I worked as a teaching and research assistant for 1993 Nobel Laureate Douglass C. North from 2002-2005. During this time, he was teaching a freshman seminar using The Economic Way of Thinking and team-teaching (with John Drobak) an upper-level/law school course called “Theory of Property Rights.” He was also finishing his 2005 book Understanding the Process of Economic Change, which was considerably influenced by Hayek. I remember Professor North saying that Hayek was the most important economist of the twentieth century.

Who is your greatest inspiration?
I can name several. Mises because he never gave up, even after being hunted by the Nazis. Indeed, I told my students on the last day of class this past Fall that on the days when I feel like the whole world is against me or when things just don’t go my way, I think about the courage of Mises and so many others like him whose lives were sought by maniacs and tyrants. The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis has a very moving (and fascinating) exhibit on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People died for translating the Bible into English. John Bunyan spent years in prison. Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee died in one of Mao’s labor camps. These examples help me try (albeit not always successfully) to focus on things that really matter. Among scholars today, Douglass North and John Nye were mentors who helped me learn how to ask big questions. I also take my approach to scholarship from Deirdre McCloskey, who has spent an entire career asking and answering very important questions. Within the economic history profession, Price Fishback and Robert Margo exhibit the kinds of virtues one wants in senior scholars.

How important is ethics in relation to economic theory and the progression of free-market ideals?
Ethical reflection is extremely important, and it’s one thing that motivates me. For example, I got interested in Southern economic history in part because I wanted to understand how such obviously appalling and immoral systems as chattel slavery and Jim Crow persisted for so long. As a Christian I spend a lot of time thinking about the intersections between ethics and economics. I agree with those like Paul Heyne and Steve Horwitz who have argued that it is the ethicists who need to take economics seriously. Compassion is very important, but it is insufficient. One of the great contributions economics makes to ethics is to show that a lot of our grand schemes and charitable endeavors actually do more harm than good. I think it is a very stunted (and immature) morality that doesn’t take economics seriously.

Do you have any new works on the way?
I have a handful of Walmart papers in the pipeline. I’m also working on a series of papers about racist violence and Southern economic history. These have been in various stages of completion for several years. I’m also working on a handful of book projects. I’m working on combining some of my published academic work into a book on the social role of profit and some of my published popular work into a book on day-to-day economics. The Walmart research will turn into a book eventually. I have two super-large projects I want to finish if I live to be 90. The first is the definitive economic history of the South. The second is a treatise on social science tentatively titled The Possibility of Civilization.
On the popular front, I have my weekly contributions to Forbes and my twice-weekly(ish) contributions to the Mises Blog. In 2011, I’m going to try to make better use of Twitter. I’m also doing some professional development writing and speaking for the Institute for Humane Studies and exploring a periodic collaboration with the Womack Company on personal productivity.

What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work? What drives you to do what you do?
I want my work to lead to a freer, richer world. I’m motivated by a handful of things. The first is a source of what Bill Hybels calls “holy discontent.” I see a lot of places where I can contribute. The second is my family. I was radicalized again when our son was born in 2008, and this was redoubled when our daughter was born this past summer. The third is the conviction that people are morally significant for their own sake. This probably isn’t the time or the place for an extended theological discussion, but as a Christian, I’m of the view that people are valuable to God. Therefore, they are valuable to me. Someday, my children will learn about the horrors people have visited upon one another. When they ask “what did you do about it?”, I want to be able to give a better answer than “change the channel.”

Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
I agree with Benjamin Powell–I thought we were the next generation! As my cohort approaches tenure and positions of leadership within the profession, we’re realizing that we aren’t the new guys anymore. We got here by going to conferences, meeting people, being alert to and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, and putting in a lot of hours grappling with blinking cursors and blank computer screens. A lot of opportunities have come my way because I’ve been in the right place at the right time.

Do careful, applied research with an eye to the Big Issues. Richard Hamming’s “You and Your Research” is essential, and it is worth re-reading occasionally. He suggests that scientists and scholars should always be working with an eye to how their research addresses the most important problems out there. Borrowing from Hamming, we should always ask “what is the most important question in my field? How does my research help answer it?”

Write a lot, take the time to find your scholarly voice and your public voice, and develop styles that are appropriate for different audiences. This takes a lot of very, very hard work, and I’ve found that reviewing books is a good way to practice reading appreciatively (if critically) and to practice writing. Two of the best guides I’ve seen are Deirdre McCloskey’s Economical Writing (which I discuss here) and Michael Munger’s essay on writing in the IHS publication “Scaling the Ivory Tower” (PDF here; here’s a version of Munger’s article aimed at faculty members that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education). The tone I take in a Forbes article about a controversial issue is going to be different from the tone I take in a book review for The Freeman. This is in turn different from the style I use in an academic article. Write to instruct, not to enrage: if you feel the urge to write “sheeple,” resist.

Be ready and willing to learn from anyone and everyone, and listen (or read) carefully, charitably, and appreciatively. Be aware of your own biases. Reading Bryan Caplan and Robin Hanson has done a lot for me in this respect. Seek empathy, and avoid the temptation to ascribe disagreements to idiocy or ill will. I’ve come to the conclusions I’ve reached by thinking hard about economics pretty much all day, every day since I first took introductory microeconomics in Fall 1997. When I was a child, I thought as a child, but every day is an effort to put aside childish things: I have, at one time or another, held a lot of the ideas and indulged a lot of the fallacies and errors I now criticize.

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