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Learning About the Big Picture - Tackling Economic Challenges at the Micro Level

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When I tell people that I have a Ph.D. in economics, I get all kinds of responses. One of my favorites has been, "Oh, home economics?" "Yeah, you look like you'd be an artist or something." That said, one of the most common responses I get is, ‘Why would you want to study something so difficult and boring?" - although they usually try to phrase it more diplomatically. I take that as my cue to launch into some explanation/apology about loving math and how actually economics incorporates lots of interesting ideas and at its core is nothing more than studying how people make choices. And if you happen to love overanalyzing things, perhaps you will agree with me that there is nothing more interesting than trying to figure out why we do the things we do. I don't think I will ever get tired of it.

The Atlantic Summit on the Economy

But, I'm going to make a confession - sometimes, even I can I agree that economics can be really boring. As a professional economist, I occasionally feel guilty for being bored when I hear people talking about business cycles or interest rates or other issues that are actually incredibly important to our economy and the state of global affairs. Even as someone who is equipped with the tools and knowledge to study trends and figures, it can be really daunting to realize that there are so many interconnected pieces at work and that the answers to complicated questions are also…complicated. I prefer microeconomics, which allows me to take a tiny slice of the world's problems and see if I can figure out what exactly is going on in a specific, well-defined scenario.

Just over a week ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Atlantic's Summit on the Economy to hear leading academics and policymakers speak about the state of our national and global economies. Even though macroeconomics is not my favorite thing, I was excited to hear a bunch of smart, famous, powerful people talk about some of the current economic issues that they find most important and compelling, and of course they did not disappoint. I walked away with a better snapshot of the key issues that we as a nation will need to confront in the coming years - dealing with increasing inequality, providing greater access to higher education, ensuring that homeownership or affordable rental housing are attainable, deciding how much to open our borders for both trade and immigration, and finding a way to sustainably manage rising healthcare costs.

It is pretty daunting to think about high-level challenges such as creating a federal budget or calculating the nationwide impact of increasing healthcare costs, but while I was listening to these experts and chatting with other researchers and policymakers in attendance, I realized that these are not problems we have to tackle as a giant block - and this is where my area of expertise comes in. When I take a tiny slice of one of these problems and analyze it, my hope is that this increased understanding can improve the world in some small way by making programs more efficient or drawing a line between two factors to identify some cause and effect relationship. During one panel, Representative John Delaney talked about how research is the best investment that government makes - that the return on this investment is more than double in terms of value added to the economy.

FMG is involved with many types of social science research. Although our research may not solve the country's problems overnight, it does help government and private organizations make small, effective improvements in order to make things better for everyone. For instance, we can't solve the health care crisis, but we can find out which methods are most likely to keep young people from forming tobacco addictions. With each study and project, we are doing our part to chip away at the challenges we face as a country, and these small insights can be applied to other problems as we keep building knowledge and making progress.

If you continue to struggle when confronted with "boring" economic charts and graphs, I will not fault you, but remember that behind all of those numbers are the stories of real people making real choices. Economics isn't just about the big picture, but sometimes it is necessary to look at the big picture so that we know where the problem areas are - then we can delve in and explore the everyday choices that make up that particular part of the picture, and with any luck we can come up with some solutions and insights that will make our institutions more effective, more efficient, and better for everyone.

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