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Faculty Focus

Introducing Ryan Bubb

Assistant Professor of Law

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Getting a quick gym workout with the gregarious Ryan Bubb is a challenge. “People interrupt us, asking him to help solve an economics or a physics problem,” says Nicco Mele, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Bubb’s close friend. “A workout could take three hours.”

A sailor, singer, guitarist, and one-time computer programmer, Bubb has extracurricular activities that are certainly broad, but no more so than his scholarship. His work spans international development law, with a focus on organizational design and the allocation of property rights, to financial institutions and business law. “He is a true polymath,” says Mele. “I can argue with him about anything. I’ll make it up, but he’s actually read up.”

Though his first love was physics, for which he won top honors at the College of William and Mary, Bubb switched gears after spending the summer before senior year in rural Haiti. Using his physics know-how, he installed a power system at the local elementary school and was moved by “seeing people who lived in such poverty and without the basic societal infrastructure that I’d taken for granted,” he says.

Graduating in 1998 with a desire to “make the world a better place,” Bubb became a science teacher at a parochial school in Washington, D.C. “But herding middle school students didn’t play to my strong suits,” he jokes.

He entered Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal and delved into the study of economics. “Economic analysis sheds light on the role of legal institutions in shaping incentives in society,” says Bubb, an Olin Fellow in Law and Economics. Graduating in 2005 with both a J.D. and an M.A. in economics, he next attended Harvard, conducting fieldwork in Ghana under a Hewlett Foundation grant, and was a graduate fellow at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. He expects to receive his Ph.D. this year in political economy and government.

Bubb joins the NYU Law faculty in September after spending a year as a policy analyst for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and as a senior researcher for the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, charged with investigating the causes of the current economic meltdown. “Ryan’s interests intersect with those of several different groups on our faculty,” says Professor Oren Bar-Gill, naming the property law and financial institutions groups, among others. “And through his work for OIRA, he gained valuable insight into the real-world application of cost-benefit analysis in shaping regulation.”

Bubb co-wrote a June 22, 2009, op-ed for the New York Times called “A Fairer Credit Card? Priceless.” The authors take aim at credit card companies that exploit missed payments and other consumer mistakes by levying punishing fees. Comparing investor-owned credit card firms with customer-owned credit unions, they found that although credit unions charge higher upfront costs, they impose smaller and fewer penalties. The findings belie credit card companies’ claims that the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act will force fundamental changes in credit cards. “Credit unions largely conform to the new rules already,” they wrote, “while profitably maintaining the basic features that users know and love.”

In a work in progress, “States, Law, and Property Rights in West Africa,” Bubb investigates the evolution of property institutions. Drawing on economics, he uses a statistical technique called regression discontinuity to estimate the effects of the divergent de jure property law of Ghana and neighboring Côte d’Ivoire on de facto property rights institutions. He finds that even though the formal laws change when you cross the border, people in both countries maintain similar land-transfer rights. Thus, the results suggest that “a top-down model of legal reform has limitations,” he says. “Institutions are determined in large part by a bottom-up evolutionary process.”

Bubb, who in December plans to wed Claire Coiro, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in classics, chose NYU Law for its strength in business law as well as law and development. “NYU is clearly a place where students and faculty are tackling the questions that first captivated me when I was in Haiti,” he says. “That’s not true at most law schools.”

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