Interview Insights: Dr John Komlos

Dr John Komlos is professor emeritus of economics and of economic history at the University of Munich, Germany and is currently visiting professor of economics at Duke University. He received PhDs in both history and in economics from the University of Chicago where Nobel-Prize winning economic historian Robert Fogel introduced him to the field of anthropometric history in 1982. Komlos devoted most of his academic career developing and expanding this research agenda, which culminated in his founding the field of economics and human biology with the journal of the same name in 2003.

Sir, what are your primary research interests? What drew you to those areas?

At the beginning of my career, I was interested in economic history. I was fascinated by the way civilizations change over time and I wanted to learn more about them. I was particularly interested in exploring watershed moments like the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In the course of that research I learned about the possibility of studying the nutritional status of populations using their height as an indicator variable. That was a new field in cliometrics, which is the study of economic history from a quantitative perspective, and I was attracted by all the possibilities in such a new field. So I devoted the next three decades of my life to studying the history of human stature in order to gain fresh insights into the secular changes in the biological well being of various populations. I collected hundreds of thousands of archival records and discovered many fascinating patterns that ultimately led to the realization that economic processes have a profound effect on the physical growth of human beings. In other words, economic and biological processes are fundamentally and intricately intertwined. These effects are most clearly evident at crucial developmental junctures such as during the Industrial Revolution or at the onset of modern economic growth. In order to explore these issues more systematically, I founded an interdisciplinary journal devoted to this topic, Economics and Human Biology, in 2003.

In the course of my research I came to the conclusion that conventional monetary measures were not very good indicators of well being and formulated the concept of the “Biological Standard of Living”. Realizing how inadequate conventional economics is in understanding the real world, I entered the third phase of my academic interests by wanting to reform economics so that it conforms better to real-world phenomena. So I wrote a textbook about it which is now in its second edition.

Of all the projects you have done, which was the most important to you? Why?

During the second phase of my research program, I discovered that populations became shorter during the Industrial Revolution; this is important in understanding the fundamental nature of the economic processes and their interactions: “Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution,” Journal of Economic History 58 (1998) 3: 779-802.

Then during the current phase of my research program I realized how the mistakes of economists led to the rise of populism in the USA and became a threat to the democratic system. Economists said that tax cuts would be good for the economy and instead they created an obscene level of inequality; they said that globalization would be good for Americans and instead it became a major destroyer of jobs; they said the deregulation would be good for the economy and instead it brought us the financial crisis. So that is how we arrived at a cancerous twenty-trillion dollar economy not prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic. See: “The Triumph of Trumpism,” Journal of Contextual Economics, Schmollers Jahrbuch, 137 (2017), 4: 421-440;

What do you think of the concept of literacy being expanded from classrooms to digital platforms, especially during the coronavirus pandemic?

Good. Students should use every means available to expand their horizons.

Sir, if you had the ability to go back in time, what advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?

Of course, as a teenager, I did not know what I was going to devote my life to. But I was lucky in that my parents taught me the soft skills needed for a decent life. This includes being true to oneself as much as possible. Do not be mesmerized by pecuniary rewards. Do not go along with the crowd. Do not seek fulfillment through a cost-benefit analysis. That would not lead to a good life. Instead, think for yourself and devote your life to an ideal and stick to it. Be patient, be honest, do not hurt others, and do not be a sycophant.

What is one superpower you would like to have?

It would be nice to be able to change people’s minds so we could eliminate hatred and wars and create a more cooperative economy.

How would you describe your teaching style in one word?

Socratic

What is the best book you would recommend?

McNamee, Roger. 2019. Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe (New York: Penguin Press).

What other subjects do you like aside from Economics?

Philosophy, History, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology

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