The quality of content in ACI is due to the rigor of our selection process and to the incredible scholarship and credentials of scholarly bloggers publishing in their fields. Due to this selectivity in content and academic contributions, ACI is proud to highlight exceptional blog authors in order to showcase their work and inspire other scholarly blog authors… and today’s author spotlight is on Dr. Dan Mitchell.

Author of the blog International Liberty, Dr. Mitchell has held several noteworthy positions. He was an economist for Senator Bob Packwood and the Senate Finance Committee, as well as a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

“My two cents is that students, recent graduates, researchers, and others interested parties should force themselves to write if they want to migrate into the world of public policy. Writing for the sake of writing is good practice, and it also creates a paper trail to show prospective employers you have some degree of commitment.”
Dan Mitchell

Dr. Mitchell is currently a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, where he specializes in fiscal policy, particularly tax reform, international tax competition, and the economic burden of government spending. He also serves on the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review.

Read on for ACI’s full interview with Dr. Mitchell.


Unlike some PhD economists, rather than veering towards economics as a graduate student, your focus on economics actually started right away, as an undergraduate. What came first – your interest in tax policy or your interest in economics? How did your interest in those areas begin?

Policy came first and the credit (or blame) belongs to Ronald Reagan. I didn’t watch the news regularly or read newspapers for reasons other than sports, so I’m still unsure to this day how it happened, but I became interested in public policy in 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. I mistakenly thought that meant I was interested in politics, so I initially majored in political science when I started college. I eventually realized that I was actually interested in economics and wound up getting a double major. I then stayed at the University of Georgia to get a masters degree in economics as my interest in the field deepened.

Many economists stop after the bachelor or master’s level and pursue their careers from that point. What influenced you to take that interest through the PhD level? Are there aspects of your doctoral education that have a bigger (or smaller) impact on your present-day research or theories than you anticipated?

While studying for my M.A. at Georgia, I began to do a lot of independent research and learned that George Mason University was Mecca for folks who were both interested in economics and public policy. Especially if you thought markets worked better than statism. The public choice school was headquartered at GMU, and there was also a center for those interested in the Austrian school of economics. So I came to northern Virginia for GMU’s Ph.D. program.

Actually obtaining my Ph.D. took longer than I thought. Taking the necessary classes wasn’t difficult and I managed to pass the necessary macro, micro, and field exams. But then things like employment and children began to intervene and writing the dissertation was moved to the back burner. But thanks to nagging by a former boss at the Heritage Foundation, Stuart Butler, I eventually buckled down and finished up. I’m sure it’s good for credibility to have a doctorate, but the real value of a sound economic education (at least in the world of public policy) is that you you’re always thinking about secondary and tertiary effects of public policy. One of the most astute observations by Frederic Bastiat is that a good economist focuses on the “unseen.”

There’s a great Free Thoughts interview where the Warren Buffett/secretary example came up, not long after a discussion of the 75K pages on tax regulation. Do you see your role as Senior Fellow equal parts working toward policy improvement and communicating information (whether on current conditions or on proposed improvements) to the public?

My job is to proselytize for liberty. Sometimes that means one-on-one explanations of an issue for somebody on Capitol Hill. Sometimes it means a TV interview where you have to figure out a few soundbites that will make people open their minds about an issue. Sometimes it means a speech about a particular topic at some conference. And every day it means producing a column designed to bring facts and analysis on a timely issue in front of readers.

“It’s easy to set up a blog, and it’s easy to share posts on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and other outlets. Combined with networking, that can build a reputation.”
Dan Mitchell

Cato’s work brings in more of the ivory tower than some people might realize – even panel participants include not just professors, but graduate students. Have you found that the rise in social media engagement has allowed for more connections to (or involvement with) groups outside policy think tanks – like those in academia? Or has it just made those connections more visible?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on “outreach”, but there’s no question that the Internet and social media have combined to make it much easier to disseminate our work. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s now far more material from everybody, so you have to compete for attention. That being said, it does allow for more cross-pollination between academics, think tanks, and the general public. We make a special effort at Cato to make that happen.

Cato offers a “New Legal Academic” workshop focused on developing “young lawyers’ writing about ideas, theory, and policy” in order to “stay connected to the scholarly community and their peers, while getting valuable feedback and input on their scholarly projects”. That’s a pretty awesome initiative for law students or recent graduates. We have a lot of authors who are economics students, and researchers who are economics majors… do you have any advice on “writing about ideas, theory, and policy” for budding economists?

My two cents is that students, recent graduates, researchers, and others interested parties should force themselves to write if they want to migrate into the world of public policy. Writing for the sake of writing is good practice, and it also creates a paper trail to show prospective employers you have some degree of commitment. It’s easy to set up a blog, and it’s easy to share posts on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and other outlets. Combined with networking, that can build a reputation. Of course, a paper trail can be a bad thing if you fall victim to the temptation to write intemperate things. As your parents may have told you, count to 10 before doing anything when you’re angry.

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