HICKS: Economist job more exciting than most think

Mike Hicks
January 8, 2011
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Mike Hicks

Recently, my wife has stopped calling me an economist. It is too hard to explain what I do, so she calls me a professor (which has far more cool points to Harry Potter or Gilligan’s Island fans).

Her reticence begs the question, “What does an economist do and why would anyone want to be one?”

I went to college to become an infantry officer in the U.S. Army. On my first day at Virginia Military Institute, as I passed through the desks where one chose a major and service, I proudly announced I wanted to become an electrical engineer and infantryman. The captain just smiled, and told me the U.S. Army would never allow such a silly thing.

I asked, “What is the next most difficult college major that would ensure I could get into the infantry?” He pointed to a nearby table and said, “Economics is a tough major, but it isn’t practical, so you can still be in the infantry.”

I suffered through three years of a liberal arts economics degree when, at last, as a senior, I fell in love with it. Economic modeling was a clear and wonderful insight into matters big and small. It offered a way of looking at problems and assessing the benefits and costs of a solution against a common standard. I was hooked.

By then, I was destined for another career, but, after eight years of soldiering, economics pulled me back into the fold and into a doctoral degree.

Graduate school in economics did not come easy to me, and I continue to struggle with new ideas and techniques every week—sometimes every day. When I hear today’s students groan and despair in their economics class, I fully understand why. Describing the behavior of people, businesses and governments in equations is intensely abstract, and not everyone is good at abstractions.

The most common mistakes I hear about economists are that we have some special insight on investing, or that there is some political litmus test we must pass (those distinctions belong elsewhere).

What makes economics exciting, and ultimately the most influential of academic pursuits of the past century, is the combination of two traits.

The first is that, through the use of mathematics and statistics, economic analysis is enormously transparent. This process takes several years of graduate school and a lifetime thereafter to master.

Second, economists have long used a rigorous benchmark against which to measure the merit of a policy or program (Who are the winners and losers, and what is the net gain?). This is maddening to folks with a political agenda, and breeds a famously prickly reputation for economists.

But these two features place economic analysis in an enviable position to address nearly every issue. So, today, the most influential research in management theory, social, education, health, taxation, environmental and legal policy all comes from economists.

It may not be a practical field, but it sure is exciting. Now, if I can only get my wife to agree.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ