January 8, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Emma Wei

From her first encounter with public choice theory to her time spent learning to apply those ideas to policy, Frédéric Bastiat Fellowship and Visiting Dissertation Fellowship alum Emma Wei has spent her academic and professional career combining theoretical ideas with practical realities. She first came across James M. Buchanan’s ideas while researching fiscal federalism and found his book with Richard A. Musgrave: Public Finance and Public Choice: Two Contrasting Visions of the State. The book gives an overview of the two theorists’ alternative philosophies of government and their approaches to public finance and public economics. “In general, I’m really interested in the role of government and political economy,” Emma says. “That book was the first time I was exposed to James Buchanan’s positive approach to public finance. I found it really interesting, so I began to study that more afterward.”

"The Bastiat Fellowship is definitely an opportunity to apply theory to practice, and it's a very good networking opportunity."

Emma’s interest in Buchanan’s research program led her to the Mercatus Center’s Frédéric Bastiat Fellowship. She participated during the 2017-2018 academic year while obtaining her PhD in Urban Planning from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where her research analyzed municipal fiscal sustainability in the context of the fiscal federalism framework. “I really liked the Bastiat Fellowship because it gives students whose backgrounds are not necessarily economics an opportunity to learn public choice theory,” Emma says. “I definitely developed a very systematic way of thinking to better understand policy issues."

During the following academic year, Emma was invited to participate in the Mercatus Visiting Dissertation Fellowship. She spent five consecutive weeks at the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at George Mason University working on her research, taking classes, and seeking feedback from Hayek Program scholars. Working at the Fairfax and Arlington campuses for five weeks “gave me a full experience,” she says. “The professors were so enthusiastic about the topics they were teaching, and so were the students. They were very passionate about the topics, so I really enjoyed the interaction between the students and the professors.” In addition, she participated in a few graduate research workshops, which she says, “helped me to frame my own research questions.”

"The Visiting Dissertation Fellowship gave me tools to analyze public policy issues in a more comprehensive, holistic way."

The Visiting Dissertation Fellowship also brought her initial interest in political economy full circle. During those five weeks, she says, “I started to ask very philosophical questions of why things happen this way and what kind of incentives the system created to cause the problem. The Visiting Dissertation Fellowship gave me tools to analyze public policy issues in a more comprehensive, holistic way."

Currently, Emma is a Senior Associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts. She works on the Public Sector Retirement System Team, where she focuses on, but is not limited to, evaluating the fiscal health of state pension systems using financial indicators. “Through the Bastiat Fellowship, I learned a lot about the public pension issues that the states are facing and gained the analytical tools to evaluate the system,” she says.

In the future, she hopes to take on more project management tasks and to have the opportunity to do surveys, field research, and experiments. Her long-term goal, though, is broader: “I hope that the research itself will have [a] more positive and profound impact on society.”

“I think public choice theory is really a framework to analyze any policy issue in the real world,” Emma says. “The fellowships create a lot of flexibility for students focusing on their own research ideas and exploring new ideas.” She advises current fellows to “stay very focused on the things you’re interested in and be very persistent. Having an internship in your field, having a fellowship, all those small things add up, and it helps you to understand your research a little more and its implications in the real world.”