Public Policy and Finance:
1. Bill Dudley
2. Chad Bown
4. Norm Champ
Trade, Globalization, and Development:
4. Michael Froman
5. Chad Bown
6. Jacques Bughin
7. Tim Besley
8. Christopher Marks
9. Torsten Slok
10. Melville Mummert
11. Bill Janeway
12. Adam Tooze
13. Stefan Eich
14. Celeste Wallander
15. Ryan Crocker
16. Sherry Glied
17. Reinhard Busse
18. Glen Weyl
19. Ge Wang
20. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
If you want an overview of all the frontier thinking that’s being produced in our world today, look no further but the list of guest lectures taking place in Princeton. Just in economics, whether it’s Glen Weyl’s bold new ways to reorganize free markets (Radical Markets) or Adam Tooze’s fascinating interpretation of financial crises (Crashed), all those scholars’ thinking seeks to challenge our existing conceptions about our world and to push the frontiers of our discourses forward.
Being in such an intellectual environment, my founding partners and I started Policy Punchline with one simple observation and one idealistic hypothesis: so many renowned scholars and policymakers come speak in Princeton, yet very few students approach them for further interaction; if we humbly ask them to tell us more about their insights, they might happily do so, and at least some people would be interested in listening to the interview. We were proven right, and it is beyond my wildest imagination that Policy Punchline would have conducted 32 interviews and grown to have more than 30 team members in less than 6 months’ time.
I say this not to pat ourselves on the back, but rather with tremendous humility and gratitude for our guests’ unconditional kindness. It needs to be acknowledged that when any guest says yes to our interview request, it is nearly 100% the case that he or she is just trying to be nice to some kids and doesn’t expect anything in return – I’m sure that very few books written by our guests are actually sold because someone listened to our podcast… We have little to offer our guests, and we literally would not have a show without their altruistic support.
Our extraordinarily thoughtful guests really condensed years, if not decades, of contemplation and life wisdom into those one-hour interviews and pulled me closer to understanding the essence of many issues. There’s an excitement being immersed in some of our world’s most brilliant ideas, and having the privilege to help spread those discussions to more people through Policy Punchline is a dream come true.
Our first interview was with Dr. Christopher Marks in November, 2018. He had given a lunch talk at Princeton titled “Successful Risk Management in Development Finance: Cutting-Edge Case Studies from Africa,” which was so eye-opening that I couldn’t resist myself from going up to him after the lecture to invite him for a podcast interview. He gladly said yes for an interview on the following day, but I didn’t even know where to interview him.
Policy Punchline wasn’t an actual thing yet back then – we hadn’t even conducted a “mock interview,” and my founding partner Arthur and I had to scramble for a studio space in a student library above one of our dining halls. I stayed up all night studying about public finance in Africa and writing up interview questions, but I was still so inexperienced and nervous during my interview with Dr. Marks that many of the questions were asked in a half-shaken voice…
Dr. Marks was incredibly kind and talked to us for nearly 3 hours that were eventually published as two highly successful episodes, and I’ll never forget the two pieces of advice he gave me later:
1. Don’t be afraid to talk to people that are crazily smarter or more experienced at something than you. You’re gonna be stupid, but be stupid, ask the questions, and improve.
2. You have to feel happy about bad mistakes. I’m talking about really bad mistakes – mistakes not like getting a bad grade, but those that might even point to your flaws as a human.
His words instilled so much faith in me and laid such a powerful foundation for Policy Punchline. In the following months, we ran into many difficulties but have always believed in our mission and stayed focused. We got to connect with so many high-profile guests whose knowledge is often beyond our grasp, but we never lost our genuineness and courage to reach out, and we remained humble in our desire to learn from them.
In the months following our first interview with Dr. Marks, the more guests I talked to, the more questions I started to have. From global inequality to the challenge against Liberalism, there seems to be so many issues in our world today that I could hardly walk away from each interview not feeling the heavy responsibility placed on my generation. Though most of our guests express an optimistic attitude towards the future of humanity, many also stress how it’s dangerous to think of human progress as linear, and that we have to stay vigilant and humble as we continue to tackle the issues in our world.
As a group of students who are non-partisan and haven’t settled on any views, we feel a strong obligation to be receptive to all sides of an argument. In this book, you’ll see opinions across the political spectrum and arguments against one another. We don’t selectively interview anyone to promote any ideology, and even if I agree with an opinion during the interview, I tend to play devil’s advocate or bring up our other guests’ arguments to dig deeper into the issue.
The only agenda we’ve set for ourselves is to ask the fundamental, often naive, questions that many others won’t:
⁃ What constructive role is finance truly playing in our society, and how can we reconcile it with the detriments it has caused in the crises we’ve experienced?
⁃ Will liberal democracy become an outdated political system as new visions empowered by decentralization and dataism seem to become better equipped to address the urgent issues that inevitably arise in the future?
⁃ Have we truly made progress as a humanity? And will a more optimistic or pessimistic response to that question better prepare ourselves for our future challenges?
There’s a danger of extrapolating too much to the extremes, and it has always been difficult for us to find that balance between grounding ourselves with real-world evidence and thinking ahead about grand issues. But I believe this is what distinguishes Policy Punchline from a 15-minute educational podcast or a CNBC interview on the similar topics. It’s harder work on our end, but I have faith it’s the right direction.
On our way back to his office after our interview, I told Prof. Stefan Eich that I had been considering pursuing a Ph.D. because I value intellectual curiosity and derive a lot of joy from constantly learning about new ideas. He chuckled and told me that academia might be one of the most anti-intellectual places of all because people are so focused on their niche and don’t interact with other disciplines enough. I’ve heard this criticism not only from Prof. Eich – or many other guests like Prof. Reinhard Busse – but almost every academic I’ve spoken to.
People clearly recognize that the academia needs more people who can draw interdisciplinary connections. If one can bring financial economics, political theory, climate change, and many of the other fascinating debates together in a thoughtful way, this person is most likely a wonderful academic. While I don’t have the ability to do so yet, I do hope to build Policy Punchline to be as similar to a think tank as possible and bring different voices together.
I remember reading Progress and Confusion: The State of Macroeconomic Policy before starting at Princeton. It is a collection of essays gathered by the IMF from prominent economists and policymakers – including Ben Bernanke, John Taylor, and Raghuram Rajan – to address a series of macroeconomic issues. It was absolutely eye-opening to see such a consortium of ideas in dialogue with each other, and I have since then dreamed about either being part of or helping put together a collection of such.
Policy Punchline is not the IMF, but as this preface should have clearly shown by now, we have every desire to contribute to the academic discourse. This book brings together a relatively diverse range of topics – from globalization to financial economics; from healthcare to diplomacy; from big data to decentralized governance… I consider this book as an undergraduate attempt to explore some of our world’s most urgent problems and bring together some of our world’s most brilliant thinkers.
Just to end this preface with a quick thought:
I was chatting with Prof. Ge Wang after our interview, and he mentioned Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen’s “capability approach” to welfare economics that focuses on human flourishment. The idea goes back to Kant that we should treat each person as the ends itself and not the means to an end.
This has been Policy Punchline’s philosophy since day one. We’re not doing those interviews to get somewhere, and being part of those discourses is the ends itself. Sure, every team member and I intend to build this podcast into a bigger platform and bring more ideas together, but we ultimately treat it as an ongoing process to fulfill our potential and live an intellectually fulfilled life outside the classrooms. I am so happy and grateful to be part of this ride.
Host & Co-Founder of Policy Punchline