A couple weeks ago, Travis Stegall, Brunswick’s Economic and Community Development Director, stopped by the college to give a talk to the students in my economic development course. He did a great job. He was interesting and engaging, and he conveyed a real passion for seeing Brunswick develop into a thriving city.
But, for me, one of the most memorable moments of his presentation happened at the end, when a student asked, “What is the hardest part of your job?” Of all the challenges associated with developing community and bringing business to downtown Brunswick, Mr. Stegall pinpointed “Communicating to others what I do” as the most difficult part of his job.
I know how he feels. I would not say communicating what I do is the most difficult part of my job, but it is one of the more difficult parts of meeting new people professionally or, even worse, socially.
When folks find out I am an economist, they have one of two reactions: 1) they stagger back, turn pale, and tell me how much they hated economics in school, or 2) their eyes light up and they begin to ask for my opinions on current economic policy, usually as they segue into telling me their own opinions.
Often, neither reaction stems from a solid understanding of what economists — particularly microeconomists — do. To someone with the first reaction, I’d say a class or two in principles of economics only scratches the surface of all the cool stuff economists study.
And to someone with the second reaction, I’d say the federal reserve is fascinating, but studying it is not my cup of tea. My mentor in grad school described economics to me as a toolbox, rather than as a subject area. And I tell my students that although our syllabus lists a set of topics we will cover, economics is in the way we think about these topics, not in the topics themselves.
Truly, economists study topics across the board — markets and prices, effects of taxes or tariffs on trade, labor markets and employment trends, immigration, health care, sports, and on and on.
The value economists bring to a given field of study is a rational approach to problem solving. Economists assume (reasonably, I believe) that individuals weigh options and behave in their own self-interest.
Given this assumption and the right data, economists can answer almost any question one could ask about human behavior or effects of policy changes on human behavior.
Thus, economists often struggle to communicate what we do because we may study a wide range of topics, many of which are not front page economics news. The common denominator for economists is data. Economics is a toolbox allowing for the application of data and statistical best practices to real-world questions, or, as I like to call it, math with a purpose.