I was a Humanities major in college: to the 19-year-old me, figuring out “what made the world go round” meant studying art, philosophy, literature and especially theater. Plays give us concrete models of human behavior: they show us a collection of characters driven by their own motivations, and then bring those characters into the same physical space to interact with one another -- to combust or deflate, fall in love or argue, kiss or murder. Characters’ actions, while voluntary, seem subject to Newtonian-like laws of motion beyond their understanding or control. What better way to examine the human condition?
After college, I realized that economists share a lot of the sensibilities of playwrights, but combine those sensibilities with quantitative techniques to solve big problems in the real world. Like playwrights, economists model the world using characters (economic agents trying to maximize their own utility or profit), study interactions between those characters (buying and selling, lending and borrowing, working and hiring), and examine the forces that pull those characters toward “equilibrium.” Unlike playwrights, economists try to unpack those laws of motion that guide our behavior, which moves their project from the artistic to the scientific: Shakespeare and the Congressional Budget Office both deal with models of human behavior, but while Julius Caesar offers a meditation on political violence, the CBO can use its models to determine how different legislative proposals could affect people’s health coverage. This realization led me to get my Ph.D. in economics.
I love teaching the core courses in microeconomic theory because I still think the most fun part of this field is making those initial connections between quantitative models and the “real world.” Every quarter I watch my students struggle with, and then succeed at, making the links between verbal, visual, and mathematical descriptions of human behavior. Over the course of ten or twenty weeks, I see the quality of their thinking grow crisper, their arguments grow more precise. My goal is to have them leave my classroom not so much with a set of mathematical procedures, but with an ability to see the world around them with a playwright’s empathy and a scientist’s precision.
It’s the best job in the world. I hope to see you in class!