In this section, Professor David Autor shares his non-linear path toward teaching economics at MIT and what it is about economics that helps him answer the types of questions that mean the most to him.
Psychology or Programming?
As an undergraduate, I was a psychology major. I thought I would perhaps do a doctorate degree in clinical psychology. But I also had an interest in computer science. I was torn. I actually dropped out of college for a couple of years, and did work as a programmer. I didn’t want to do it for a living, though, because, for me, it didn’t touch on the topics about which I cared most deeply—like social welfare and the labor market. I was, and still am, interested in the kinds of skills people need to succeed in the workforce, and how those skills are rewarded. What determines opportunity and economic mobility? I especially care a great deal about how people who are the least well-off are affected by economic opportunity, education, and changes to the labor market.
Psychology was the opposite. It touched on the things I cared about a great deal. But I felt like it didn’t do it very rigorously. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided that I didn’t want to do a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I loved politics, so I spent several years promoting education for disadvantaged children and adults in San Francisco. I also volunteered at a computer learning center in South Africa.
Answering the Important Questions
After working and volunteering, I went to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. One year into the program, I decided to apply to the Ph.D. program in public policy. Because I was applying for a doctorate degree, I had to take upper level classes in economic statistics. I had never taken economics before. I found that economics helped me answer the questions that interested me the most—in exacting and satisfying ways.
So my Ph.D. is not in economics. It’s in public policy. I was surprised and fortunate to be hired to teach in the MIT Department of Economics. I had to do a lot of remedial education when I got here. Teaching 14.03 Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy was actually a very important part of my education. Teaching very smart, very technically adept undergraduates meant I had to learn economics at a very deep level. It has been an intellectually informative experience, and one that has shaped my work as a labor economist.
A Good Fit
Economics is a good fit for me because it offers three things that I find particularly satisfying as a scholar. First, it allows researchers to answer cause and effect questions. Everyone has known forever that correlation is not causation, but they haven’t always known what to do about that problem. Economists have become much better at figuring out how to approach this conundrum—both experimentally, which everyone understands, but also non-experimentally.
Another unique element that economics has is the concept of equilibrium. It’s the extremely powerful idea that individuals’ decisions aggregate to generate outcomes that are not necessarily the sum of the parts. And it can be just the opposite! It affords unparalleled insights.
Finally, a lot of social sciences make assumptions about people that are too simplistic. People tend to be viewed as automata and social scientists tend to be somewhat patronizing in their views of humanity. But economists start by crediting people with doing the best they can with what they have. They’re individually maximizing. Now taken to the extreme, it become ridiculous, right? When you think people are optimizing everything to the 400th decimal place all the time. That’s not correct. However, it does take, as a starting point, that people have objectives and constraints, and are trying to figure out how to maximize their objectives within those constraints. It’s a basic model for how people think, and it seems like the right place to start. I like that about economics.