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Faculty Spotlight Interview: Robert Mulligan

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November 19, 2010

Robert F. Mulligan is from Westbury, New York, and studied civil engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, receiving a BSCE degree in 1983. He served in the U.S. Air Force and then did his graduate studies at SUNY Binghamton, receiving his Ph.D. in economics in 1993. He was a visiting assistant professor at Clarkson University from 1993-1994. He then completed the Advanced Studies Program at the Kiel Institute of World Economics in Germany, receiving the Advanced Studies Certificate in International Economic Policy Research in 1995. From 1996-1997 he was assistant dean of the Gabelli School of Business at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. After that he came to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where he still teaches. He received tenure there in 2003 and promoted to professor in 2008. His research interests include business cycle analysis, Hayekian spontaneous orders, and fractal analysis of time series. His papers have appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, Advances in Austrian Economics, the Cato Journal, Constitutional Political Economy, the Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, Studies in Emergent Order, the Journal of Private Enterprise, Education and Culture, the Indian Journal of Finance, Maritime Economics & Logistics, the World Maritime University Journal of Maritime Affairs, the Journal of Sport Management, Applied Economics Letters, and the Review of Austrian Economics.


What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
If I’m not at the office working on a paper or some especially dreary academic administrivia, I’m usually at home doing maintenance, reading, or watching a DVD of an old movie. I’m pretty much an all-business kind of a guy in that I don’t have any real hobbies, but I collect old books and Wedgwood jasperware, believe it or not. In terms of book collecting, whether I rate as a bibliophile, a lover of books, literature, and reading, or as a bibliomaniac, a victim of an obsessive-compulsive disorder which revolves around acquiring books, well, it depends on who you ask.

What drew you to the Austrian school and to the Ludwig von Mises Institute?
It’s more that the Austrian school drew me to economics. I read The Theory of Money and Credit and Human Action in high school. Then I studied engineering, but when I finally made it to grad school for economics, for the first two years, though I found the math a breeze, the economic intuition was completely foreign to me. For a lot of mainstream economics, it still is! I reflexively discount everything I learned in grad school—my attitude is generally, that’s probably a fallacy. Sad to say, that usually turns out to be correct. Economists use a lot more math than engineers, even Austrian economists. Ben Powell, whom I met at the American Institute for Economic Research, recommended the Austrian Scholars Conference, and I’ve never missed it since.

Who is your greatest inspiration?
My students. I’ve taught at schools with very rigorous academic environments, and at some with pathetically slack ones, but I’ve always had a critical mass of outstanding students who were absolutely remarkable individuals. I’ve unfortunately had to teach at a couple of institutions where academic standards are quite charitably described as a joke, but I’ve had some great students everywhere I’ve been.

Can you explain how the economic concept of time preference can affect an individual’s religion or vice versa?
This issue arises due to an ongoing controversy in sociobiology, which has an overwhelmingly secular perspective. Religion exists, and in the absence of divine intervention, it must have emerged spontaneously, and therefore must offer survival and reproductive benefits. Some critics of sociobiology define the problem away, like the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who suggested religion is a “spandrel,” a non-functional byproduct of other, actually beneficial adaptations, which are usually unobservable or have an undefined relationship with the purported spandrel. The question is, does religion provide evolutionary advantages, and if not, how could it have emerged as an institution. Divine intervention is not an attractive hypothesis for most modern scientists—it may be true, or not, but either way it doesn’t actually explain anything. To address this question, it occurred to me that for early humans, who enjoyed pathetically short life expectancies, high time preference was appropriate and virtually essential, but anyone with lower time preference would have enjoyed enhanced survival and reproductive opportunities, and furthermore, engaging in longer-range temporal planning helped develop a more powerful brain. Basically, up to the end of the copper stone age, everyone died in infancy, and for the very few who survived to adulthood, old age represented their mid-to-late teens. Once they lost their adult teeth, everybody died of starvation, and in addition, the most trivial injuries were fatal. Religion, especially belief in an afterlife, reincarnation, or spirit survival, lowered practitioners’ time preferences by extending their time horizon, and this effect would be especially dramatic in a very high time-preference environment, where everyone’s burning up lots of energy trying to get enough to eat while simultaneously avoiding predators. You also had to avoid minor injuries like stubbing your toe, because that would usually result in a fatal infection. If anything’s going to make you get religion, everybody dying young all the time would probably do it. Because the belief system lowers time preference, and lower time preference enhances survival and reproductive opportunities, believers flourish, and the belief system is passed on socially, rather than genetically. My own introspection renders this view highly counterintuitive. For me, going to church makes time positively crawl, and saying the rosary is a mechanism for making fifteen minutes seem like four hours. It may be that even in today’s world, where longer life expectancies lower time preference generally, religious rituals still act as a training ground to make us more patient as we mature to adulthood.

Do you have any new works on the way?
I’m working on a new empirical business cycle paper, estimating a Phillips curve capturing the lagged effects of inflation on output and employment. Normally, current inflation raises output and employment, the original Phillips curve result, but after a lag of six-to-eighteen months, inflation lowers output and employment, and by significantly larger amounts. Only Austrian business cycle theory can make any sense out of this result, because it holds that monetary expansion creates an unsustainable, short-term malinvestment boom, but at the expense of lowered sustainable growth in the long run.

What kind of impact do you hope to make with your work? What drives you to do what you do?
As a member of the Austrian school, and writing in the tradition of Mises and Hayek, I feel uniquely gifted to have access to profound and powerful insights into human behavior and institutions that are completely overlooked by the majority of contemporary economists. The more I hear about the latest fads the more privileged I feel to be an Austrian. Whenever I hear a new term like “the Keynesian resurgence,” I nearly choke with laughter—and it helps a lot to have a sense of humor about the profession. I feel most non-Austrian business cycle theory is either wrong, or irrelevant. One exception is Hyman Minky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis, which is seeing revived interest since the start of the recession, but this post-Keynesian model views markets as inherently unstable and liable to grow endogenously in complexity. Real business cycle theory succeeded in changing the empirical paradigm to focus on predicting the variance in output or employment, rather than actual levels of output or employment, or timing their changes. This was a neat trick, but for any black box that converts inputs into an output signal, if you manipulate the input variances enough, you can get any output signal with any variance you want. Since Austrian economics is typically criticized for being empirically deficient—though this has been changing over the last twenty years or so—it’s interesting that mainstream macro is starting to abandon empirical relevance, or any pretense of it. I’d like someday to be able to look at my research and writing and say I contributed to a better understanding of the causes of the business cycle and the importance of sound money. I’d be especially happy if I contributed to popularizing Austrian business cycle theory among laypeople, that is, among the electorate, because that could really change society for the better.

Are there any words of wisdom you wish to pass onto the next generation of Austrian scholars?
I’m going to paraphrase Einstein, and say that political controversies are for today, but scientific truth is forever. My view is that this is correct, scientific truth is forever, in that, even considering historical artifacts like the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, the phlogiston theory of heat, or Newtonian mechanics, which are no longer regarded as “true” or ontologically final, because only their falsification or generalization makes subsequent theoretical advancements possible. Finally, I’m going to quote the Duc de La Rouchefoucald, who said “hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.” This thought always helps me deal with bad referee reports. If this gives any comfort to subsequent generations of researchers, La Rouchefoucald and I could only be delighted.

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