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Economics gives presidential candidates focus

Illustration by Natasha Allegri
By Ryan Johnson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, January 26, 2006
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When the four finalists for UA president were announced last week, economics majors like me homed in on one aspect - two of them have backgrounds in the field.

That background isn't superficial, either: Tom Campbell has a doctorate in economics from Chicago, arguably the top university for economics; Deborah Freund has a doctorate in the field from the University of Michigan and has served as distinguished professor of public administration and economics at Syracuse.

Regardless of whether one of the two is selected, the fact that half the field has an extensive background in economics is no coincidence and should be welcomed.

Indeed, economics has undergone something of a renaissance recently. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of economics degrees at colleges across the country jumped by 40 percent. Much of that growth has come at the expense of majors such as political science, government, history and sociology.

This is happening as economics is increasingly applied to other fields. Economics professor Gary Libecap calls economics the "queen of the social sciences" and says that economic intuition and theory can be used to explain and build upon other subjects.

No longer is economics described as the "dismal science." The images of graphs and equations that haunted our parents are being replaced by books like "Freakonomics," which rose to number one on The New York Times bestseller list last year. The book contains no equations; instead, it opts to return to the roots of economics by looking at incentives to explain everything from baby names to sumo wrestling.

It's exciting to be studying economics today. Some might even call it cool.

Economics is closely linked to business, which is another big feather in its cap. In fact, the new dean of the Eller College of Management, Paul Portney, also has a doctorate in economics and was president of an economics and policy think tank.

Ryan Johnson

And with an average starting salary of $43,000, majoring in economics is good for the pocketbook as well. It's one of the five most demanded majors in the job market, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The monetary advantages of being an economics major continue after graduate school. Professor of economics John Drabicki says that students who received an undergraduate economics degree come out of law school with a higher starting salary than those of any other major. Economics majors also tie with chemical engineering majors for the highest starting salary after an MBA.

Economic intuition will also be a valuable asset to our new UA president. For example, an economist knows the value of certainty. That's why it's so important to grandfather in tuition increases and not turn tuition wavers into cash awards. When parents decide where to send their children, the possibility that they'll pay more in the future and won't be able to reliably plan ahead is a significant deterrent.

An economics background also supports the goals of Focused Excellence. When people judge the strength of our university, they consider the strengths of individual departments. Campbell has already said it's important to strengthen our already strong programs, which just goes to show that he gets it.

Freund has the extra advantage of being married to Thomas Knieser, the chairman of the economics department at Syracuse. He has already expressed an intention to come to Arizona should she be selected. The economics department, which in 2001 lost Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith, would benefit from Knieser's arrival.

Economics is a study of tradeoffs, and when looking at what to do with limited funds, it becomes particularly useful. With the state budget deficit that preceded Likins now a surplus, any potential increase in UA funding will need to be put to good use.

Those making the decision of who deserves to be the next president would be wise not to ignore the economics backgrounds of these two candidates.

Ryan Johnson is an economics and international studies senior. He can be reached at

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