The Time I Met Nobel Prize Winner James Buchanan

Lessons I learned at George Mason University

In college, I was an econ-nerd.  My heroes were Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell.  I listened to every Russ Roberts’ EconTalk episode on my iPod Nano.  Russ got to interview celebrities(!) like Richard Thaler, Sam Peltzman, and Tyler Cowen each week.  Scarcity, opportunity costs, utility functions, I thought I was discovering a secret language to explain the world. 

My college had two Nobel prize winning economics professors.  They were kind of a big deal.

My sophomore year, I took a class with one of the Nobel prize winners: Vernon Smith.  Vernon won the 2002 Nobel prize for his foundational work in experimental economics. He had the idea you could test economic theories by creating games and offering people real money to play them.  When you do this, you find that humans don’t always act like the profit-maximizing utility-robots some economic theorists think they act like.  This is interesting.

An example:  I give you 10 dollars and ask you how much of the 10 dollars you want to share with another participant.  A selfish utility-robot would keep the whole $10 for himself.  Basic economic theory predicts you would keep the whole $10 for yourself.  But some people do not.  Some people share – even if the other participant is a stranger.  How odd.

Another example: I give you 10 dollars and ask how much of the 10 dollars you want to share with the other participant. BUT IN THIS EXAMPLE the other participant can reject your offer.  If they reject your offer you both get nothing.  In a world of Utility-robots, Utility-robot A would want to keep as much of the money as he can and only offer $1 to Utility-robot B, which Utility-robot B would accept because one dollar is more than zero dollars.  However, Human B often rejects these proposals.  Humans are not utility-robots.  Humans are more complicated.  Weird.

So Vernon Smith set up a lot of these games, and he gave out a lot of money for people to play them, and recorded the results, and then he got the Nobel prize.  He was basically MrBeast before there was a MrBeast.  Imagine how famous Vernon Smith would be if YouTube had been bigger at the time.

And when I was a sophomore, I took Vernon’s class, and we got to play the games and understand the ideas behind them, and it was pretty awesome, and taught me the valuable lesson that humans are not robots.  

My college’s other Nobel prize winner was more elusive.  

James Buchanan didn’t teach any classes, but he was still a very big deal.  Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in 1986 (the year I was born) for his “contributions to the theory of political decision-making and public economics.”  He’s one of the founders of Public Choice economics, which applies economic thinking to political decision making.

One public choice idea is “Instead of imagining politicians as benevolent public servants, what happens if we imagine them as rational actors responding to incentives?”

In other words, Buchanan thought “If politicians were utility-robots, what would they do?”  And to some people’s surprise, theorizing politicians are selfish rational actors is a pretty good way to model how they act.  

To recap: people are more complicated than utility-robots, but thinking of politicians as utility-robots can be a useful way to predict their behavior.

James Buchanan House, George Mason University

Another fun fact: James Buchanan lived in the James Buchanan House making him (as far as I can tell) the only professor at my school living on campus in a house named after himself.  

So the summer after my sophomore year, I learned there was an economics seminar on campus, headlined by Deirdre McCloskey and Nobel Prize Winner James Buchanan (with reception to follow at the Buchanan House).  Economics seminars are one way academic economists share their works in progress.  They read their draft papers to each other, offer feedback, and think about how their ideas fit into the web of all the other ideas other people have thought about.  Excited about the opportunity to meet my school’s other Nobel prize winner, I asked if I could attend and the seminar organizer graciously let me sit in.

I was the only undergraduate.  The seminar was mostly professors or people aspiring to be professors.  The next youngest person there was probably 30, which feels very old when you are 20, but also very young when you are 35 and reflecting on the event.  The average age was probably 50 – very, very old if you are 20 – and if my math is right James Buchanan himself was about 90, unimaginably old to me even today.

Drafts papers were presented and debated. Most of the ideas were too chunky for my mushy undergraduate brain to absorb.

Then Deirdre McCloskey presented.  Deirdre is not the stereotype of a lecturing economics professor.  She has a stutter in public speaking that leaves you craning for the next word in her sentence.  But her ideas are so crisp and clear and provocative that you are anxious for those next words.  Her presentation that day has stuck with me all these years later.

A big idea in economics is gains from trade.  I choose to trade with you because it makes me better off, and you also choose to trade with me because it makes you better off.  Trades are positive-sum games, and voluntary trade is one of the foundations of our current prosperity.  

Deirdre presented the idea that conversation is an exchange of words.  Conversation is a trade of sorts, so conversation should have some positive-sum benefits, creating value like we see in traditional trade.  

Economics hasn’t focused much on conversation’s benefits.  One reason is the benefits are harder to add up than the dollars and cents of business activity. Deirdre also proposed another theory for this lack of attention: Economics is a male-dominated field.  Men are not as naturally given to conversation, and therefore tend to overlook its value.

Then she proposed a solution: More women in Economics!  She closed “this is an endeavor to which I hope to have done my part”.

Later, Professor Buchanan gave a talk.  I don’t remember a word of it.

Following the seminar, there was food and drinks and mingling.  I remember feeling lost.  Out of place in the age gap between myself and the other seminar attendees.  And then Deirdre McCloskey, headline seminar attendee, came over and talked to little-old me.  Maybe she noticed I was different.  Maybe she sensed I felt out of place.  Whatever the reason, she engaged me in conversation and I suddenly felt seen. I felt I belonged.

Then she did the most amazing thing.  

Deirdre McCloskey walked me across the room to where a circle of economists had gathered around Nobel Prize Winner James Buchanan.  

“Jim,” she said, “I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Josh Knox.  He is an undergraduate here at George Mason University”

I was starstruck.  I began to extend my hand.

Nobel Prize Winner James Buchanan grunted, “Yeah, we met already,”

But here’s the thing: we hadn’t met already.  And Deirdre knew we hadn’t met already.  But also, he’s Nobel Prize Winner James Buchanan.  What are you going to do?  

Deirdre shot me a glance and smirked. 

Maya Angeleau said “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  I smile when I remember what Deirdre McCloskey said in her draft paper, what she did in her introduction, and how she made me feel that day.

I won’t get a second chance to meet James Buchanan, he passed away in 2013.  But if I get a chance to meet Deirdre McCloskey again, I’d like to thank her for her courtesy that day.  I’d like to thank her for starting a conversation and making me feel valuable.


Additional Resources

Vernon Smith
Vernon Smith Bio
Vernon Smith Nobel Prize Press Release

James Buchanan
James Buchanan Bio
James Buchanan Nobel Prize Press Release

Deirdre McCloskey
Deirdre McCloskey Bio
Deirdre McCloskey on Manly Economics

Dad Bod Workout

Exercise #1

Begin standing, with weight on floor between your legs
Bending slightly, secure weight, and pull it to your chest

Do 3 sets of 12

Exercise #2

Lay on your back
Bring weight to chest and extend arms

Do 3 sets of 15

Exercise #3

Returning to your feet, place weight on back
Perform a deep squat until your hips are below your knees

Do 3 sets of 10

Exercise #4

Hold weight in arms
In a series of small bounces, lunge side-to-side

Repeat until exhaustion

The last exercise is most effective accompanied by singing.

Also, it helps to name your weights.
Mine are named Calvin and Lawrence.
Their little bodies grow every day.

They’ve even begun to talk
First in sounds, then words, then sentences.

It’s delightful to see their progress.

Lawrence, with Calvin behind

Manage Multiple Accounts with Browser Profiles

A small note for anyone who needs to hear it:
If you regularly switch between accounts on the same online services, consider using different browser profiles for your desktop.

Each browser profile will save your cookies and login details separately. This will reduce the hassle of having to regularly sign out of account A to login to account B, or opening an incognito browser and manually re-signing into account B every time you need to do something there.

Some Use Cases:

  • Switching between Microsoft accounts in different Tenants
  • Switching between a standard D365 account and a test user account.
  • Switching between multiple Gmail accounts.
  • Switching between your Insta and Finsta accounts.
  • Switching from your Twitter main to your burner account to dunk on people who think that Kevin Durant is not as great at basketball as Steph Curry (@KDTrey5 – HMU!)

How To Create Browser Profiles

The process is roughly the same in Edge or Chrome. Click on the circle in the upper right, you can then toggle between existing profiles or create a new profile.

Personalize your Profiles

In your browser settings (click here for Chrome browser settings | click here for Edge browser settings) you can choose unique icons to distinguish your profiles. You can also adjust the appearance (the color of the browser border) to help you easily recognize which browser profile you are using.

Update Profile Icon in Edge
Update Profile Appearance in Edge

Pin Browser Profile to Taskbar

This is my favorite feature of using browser profiles. If you have browser windows open for two different profiles, you will notice that there will be two different browser icons in your. Right-click on a particular browser icon and you can pin that browser profile to your taskbar.

Now, the next time you want to work under that profile, you can get there directly from the taskbar icon.

Pin Browser Profile to Taskbar.

Additional Resources

Memento Memoriam

There should be a word for the awareness, in moments of joy, that your memory of the moment won’t last.

I’m holding my son.  He pumps his chubby legs.  He can’t walk yet, but he wants to jump. I throw him in the air.  The corners of his mouth stretch wide as he floats.  Eight tiny teeth peak through 11-month-old gums.  Laughter gurgles from his tiny frame, filling my body with delight.

I won’t remember this.

Luana says Lawrence looks like Calvin when Calvin was Lawrence’s age.  Moms must be better at that.  The boys look similar in photographs, but I don’t have a photographic memory.

Calvin is 2 ½ now.  We don’t even count the months anymore.  I don’t have a 9-month-old, 10-month-old, 11-month-old memory of Calvin in my head.  When I close my eyes, I mostly see the same 2 ½-year-old Calvin I do when I open them. Did I play with Calvin the same way I’m playing with Lawrence now?


Last fall, my family watched Buddhist monks make a sand mandala.  The monks spent weeks laying geometric patterns on the ground with colored grains of sand, tapping the sand through slim funnels to form vibrant fractals.  

Then they just swept it up.  

They put the sand in an urn.  They poured the urn into a river.  Have you seen that guy ruin his girlfriend’s food pic?  Same energy.

A sand mandala’s beauty is temporary order.  It’s the same sand arrayed on the floor, or in the urn, or in the river.  But we wouldn’t have driven to see it in the river.  We wouldn’t have visited if it was always on the floor.  We appreciated it because of its impermanence.

My mother-in-law took a selfie with the mandala.  I’m not sure we all left with the same lessons.


The Romans had Memento Mori. When a Roman hero paraded through the streets, his servant would ride in his chariot whispering Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori.  Look behind you.  Remember you are human.  Remember your death.

Memento Memoriam isn’t so fatalistic.  No need to fall apart.  Just recognize that memories are fickle. Memories are fragile.  The act of remembering changes our memories, like the wear and tear on a photograph repeatedly pulled from a wallet.

When I close my eyes, I can see Lawrence sailing through the air.  But his 11-month-old smile isn’t as vivid as it was.  Tomorrow it will fade a little more.  

My sons won’t remember this.

In several years, we’ll look at pictures from this time. Our family will huddle together on the couch, and point, and I’ll tell them the stories as best I can.  And we’ll smile too.  

But for today, if I always hold my camera in two hands I cannot also hold my sons. 

There should be a word for the joy of having moments worth remembering, whether or not you do.

Memento Memoriam.

11-month-old Lawrence

What Do You Do?

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I hate this question. It’s a terrible question.  It’s the first question at every party, but it’s still a very bad question.  Yet some law of human nature states any two strangers standing next to each other long enough will eventually ask – whether for reasons of genuine curiosity or to evaluate relative status –  “What do you do?”

“I am a Dynamics 365 Finance and Operations Functional Consultant.”

I’m met with a blank stare.  I’ve said words and communicated nothing.  Only once have these particular words been sufficient. I was on a plane.  The woman next to me lit up, “Oh! I’m a Dynamics 365 Finance and Operations Functional Consultant too!”.  Then she paused, “How do you explain what you do to your family?”

Continue reading

Chrome Tip – Search Open Tabs

Do you compulsively open new tabs, then leave them open forever because “you might need that later”? Is the top of your browser just a bunch of tiny icons without any context? This shortcut might be for you.

CTRL+Shift+A in Chrome allows you to search your open browser tabs. Recently closed tabs are also visible at the bottom of the list.

Use CTRL+Shift+A to search open tabs

This is probably also a good time to mention that CTRL+W can be used to close your tabs, and CTRL+Shift+T can be used to reopen the most recently closed tab.

And my favorite Chrome shortcut, CTRL+F can be used to search for a term on a webpage, while CRTRL+Enter can be used to click on the found text if it is a hyperlink (this is especially helpful if you are using cloud software like Dynamics 365).


Fun fact: the upper limit on open chrome tabs is around 10,000 tabs.

DynamicsCon is HERE! (almost)

The day I’ve been looking forward to since my last post is almost here. DynamicsCon starts next week September 20th – there are so many great presentations to check out (I heard a lot of rumors about this one in particular).

You can view all presentations on the DynamicsCon Agenda website. If you want to put them on your calendar, it is easy to download meeting invitations to specific presentations there.

If you’d like to track all the Finance and Operations presentations in a calendar view, I created a google calendar for that – you can access it from the google calendar link below.

Get the Google Calendar

Outlook Tip – Create a Rule for Meeting Responses

Juliet Awaits Romeo’s Outlook Meeting Invite Response | James Northcote | oil on canvas | c1790

While my preference in meeting sizes is to abide by the two-pizza rule, sometimes large meetings are necessary. After sending a large meeting invitation, the trickle of meeting responses to my inbox throughout the day becomes an unnecessary distraction.

My solution is to create a new folder for meeting responses, and a rule to sending all meeting responses to that folder. No more distracting inbox pings for every response, though I can see a summary of meeting response activity by looking at the unread messages flag on the folder. At my convenience, I can right-click on the folder and mark all as read if I don’t care about responses, or I can dig into the folder and have an easily filtered view of meeting responses received.

This rule is easy to setup in the Outlook Web App (Outlook.com)

Create Rule for Meeting Responses

Step 1: Create folder for meeting responses.

Step 2: Sign into Outlook.com, Click on settings, Search for rules, Select Inbox rules.

Step 3: Create rule name, Choose Type: Event response for condition, Choose Move to [created folder] for action.

Outlook Tip – Rules Rule!

Outlook rules are one of the oldest, most under-utilized productivity hacks in the business applications toolbox. They’re excellent for getting distractions out of your inbox.

Newsletters you only occasionally read? Make a rule to send them to their own folder!

System generated messages you never check? Mark them as read!

Let the computer do your work for you.

Today I want to share a set of rules I create when I start working with new customers to help me manage my inbox. But more generally, I just want to encourage you to use more Outlook rules.

Create Customer Category and Rules

When I start working with a new customer, I like to create an outlook category for that customer, and rules so that all customer-specific emails will be tagged with that category.
This works for me because I frequently work across multiple customer projects at the same time, though rarely more than a handful.

Create New Outlook Category

In the Tags group, Under the Categorize button, click All categories
Then click new, and create a category for the new customer

Create Outlook Rules

In the Move group, click on the rules button and select Create Rule
A rule to tag email from the customer.
A rule to tag email to the customer.
A rule to tag email that includes the customer’s name in the subject or body of the email.

OK, What’s the Big Deal?

Automatically categorizing email by customer visually organizes my inbox. I can quickly identify customer vs. internal emails, as well as recognize which customer they pertain to.

It also provides the same visual distinction when looking at meeting invites for the week.


How do you manage your email inbox? Do you use any practices or rules that are exceptionally effective? Let me know in the comments.