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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Accomplished Economist Who Wants to Empower Whole Societies

For the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.
Zhongshan Square in Dalian, China, the city Xu Tan is from and hopes to one day return to. (Photo: MR+G/Wikimedia Commons)

Zhongshan Square in Dalian, China, the city Xu Tan is from and hopes to one day return to. (Photo: MR+G/Wikimedia Commons)

Xu Tan, 29, Economics

As a child, Xu Tan was enthralled by Albert Einstein and thought she’d become a physicist.

“I kept part of my dream to be a scientist,” she says, “but not in physics.” When she realized that she derives more enjoyment from studying things that can improve developing societies, she switched directions.

“Economics,” she emphasizes, “is a social science: Observe carefully about the society and people's behaviors.” She learned how to do so from her mentor and graduate advisor Matthew O. Jackson, a Stanford economics professor: “He taught me to think deep but notice simple intuitions.” At Stanford, Tan won an Outstanding Teaching Award for her work as a teaching assistant.

(Photo: Xu Tan)


When she joined the University of Washington’s faculty, she impressed everyone there. Jacques Lawarrée, who chairs UW’s economics department, said: “We’ve never had an assistant professor who came with such an accomplished body of published research.” Before Tan even arrived in Seattle, she had several pieces in top academic journals—rare for young economics Ph.D.s.

One particular paper she co-wrote is her proudest accomplishment. Published in the American Economic Review, it centers around the idea that exchanging favors (as opposed to more official currency) is important in rural villages where there’s no formal banking system—that favors, in fact, are vital to improving the welfare of whole villages.

Tan, who is from Dalian, China, got interested in economics when she took a game theory course during her undergraduate years at Peking University. “I learned that incentives and people's behaviors are such a fascinating question to study,” she says. “It could change the whole economy.”

Eventually Tan hopes to return to China to create policies that can empower people living in poverty to improve their own conditions. Before she goes home, though, she intends to be a productive scholar, “especially in the intersection of development economics and theory, since for now, most development economics have focused on the empirical part.” By the time she retires, she wants to have contributed to theories about development economics, but also for her work to have had some real impact in China.

In her free time, Tan says, “I try to apply anything I learned at school to real life. For instance, after studying financial math, I started to trade stocks using pricing theory and negotiated housing prices using bargaining theory. It works sometimes and fails otherwise, but it’s fun.”

Since Tan is an economic theorist, it makes sense that her guiding philosophy should center around the most precious currency of all: “Life is short,” she says, “so spend it on the several most enjoyable things.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.