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Blake Harvey
Department of History

Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2012

'Darwin Economy' author Robert Frank to deliver McNutt Lecture at IU

What: 2012 Paul V. McNutt Lecture at Indiana University
Who: Robert Frank, economist at Cornell University
Topic: "The Darwin Economy"
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Where: University Club Presidents' Room, Indiana Memorial Union

Feb. 28, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Cornell University professor Robert Frank -- whose most recent book contends that Charles Darwin, not Adam Smith, should be considered the founder of the discipline of economics -- will deliver the 24th annual Paul V. McNutt Lecture next week at Indiana University Bloomington.

Frank will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, in the University Club Presidents' Room of the Indiana Memorial Union, 900 E. Seventh St. The lecture, "The Darwin Economy," is free and open to the public.

Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and professor of economics at Cornell and a monthly contributor to the "Economic Scene" column in The New York Times. The IU Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences sponsors his lecture.

In "The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good," published in 2011 by Princeton University Press, Frank argues that Darwin's insights about evolution help explain the workings of modern economies and why the market doesn't always provide efficiency and serve the public good.

He notes that free-market conservatives fondly cite Adam Smith's invisible hand theory, which says that competition channels self-interest for the common good. Liberals counter that regulation is necessary because markets aren't truly competitive. Frank argues, on the other hand, that market failure results not from any shortfall of competition, but from the very logic of competition.

His case rests on Darwin's insight that individual and group interests often diverge. For example, bull elk evolved massive antlers as effective weaponry in the competition for access to females; but the resulting antlers, which are 4 feet across and weigh 40 pounds, made the species vulnerable to predators in wooded areas. In the modern marketplace, similarly, a parent might accept a riskier job at higher pay to buy a house in a better school district. But because school quality is a relative concept, when other parents make the same choice, they succeed only in bidding up house prices.

Frank writes that Smith's invisible hand was almost an exception to the general rule of competition. Far from creating a perfect world, economic competition often leads to "arms races," encouraging behaviors that not only cause enormous harm to the group but also provide no lasting advantages for individuals. While regulation is one way to discourage such effects, Frank favors taxation as a less intrusive approach. He has proposed a progressive tax on consumption as an alternative to income taxes.

Frank's interviews about "The Darwin Economy" with PBS and MSNBC are available online.

In addition to "The Darwin Economy," Frank's works include "Passions Within Reason," "Luxury Fever" and "What Price the Moral High Ground?" His 1995 book "The Winner-Take-All Society," co-authored with Philip Cook, was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times. He has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Nepal, chief economist for the Civil Aeronautics Board, and professor of American civilization at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

The annual McNutt Lecture honors Paul V. McNutt, who was dean of the Indiana University School of Law from 1925 to 1933, then became Indiana's governor and later served as U.S. high commissioner to the Philippines, director of the Federal Security Agency and chairman of the War Manpower Commission during World War II. For more information, contact Blake Harvey at the Department of History, 812-855-3236 or