What sparked your interest in the field?
I had no idea what economics was until I got to college and took my first economics class. I thought it was such an interesting way to understand how the world works. The economist John Maynard Keynes said a master economist is someone who can speak in words and write in numbers. This ability to move between disciplines and engage in public policy discussions really appealed to me.
How is the traditional definition of economics changing?
I take this broader conceptualization of what economics is. For a long time, a lot of economists would have defined economics as the study of scarcity or how we make optimizing decision under conditions of scarcity. I think that the best definition of economics is the study of social provisioning—how we get what we need to survive and thrive. GDP is a really useful indicator of what’s being produced, for example. But perhaps better measures of economic growth and development are what people have the capability to do and to be.
What is the focus of your research?
A lot of my research takes this capabilities approach to economic growth and development. My PhD dissertation, for example, focused on the economic causes and consequences of intimate partner violence. In the past, many economists looked at economic factors that can be protective or risk factors for experiencing violence. But I was interested in expanding that and asking, what is the scope of the problem? If you experience intimate partner violence, in what ways can that affect your long-run economic well-being?
Approaching that question in that way also draws from my training as a health economist. One of the things health economists always do is cost of illness studies. For example, you’ll read in the news that the cost of diabetes is $327 billion. It’s important to put things like that in monetary terms, because it helps draw attention to an issue and direct resources to it. So what are some of the consequences of intimate partner violence beyond the individual? We know we should intrinsically care, because it’s a deprivation of the human right to live a life free from violence. But as a business or as a university or as a society, why else should we care? Sometimes putting a dollar value on that, for better or worse, helps us take the next step.
It’s been five years since I submitted my dissertation. But from the data I looked at, it’s kind of intuitive. If you experienced intimate partner violence during college or as a young adult, you were more likely to end up on government assistance, you had lower lifetime earnings to date, and found it harder to hold down a job.
You teach a class on public finance, which explores the role of government in the economy. How do you engage your students?
We raise some really interesting issues that don’t have an easy solution. I ask my students, for example, if children should be considered public goods. Public goods are things that should be supported by the government and freely available to all because they have benefits to everyone. For economists, it’s a really contentious point. On one hand, some economists say, “Yes, 100 per¬cent. Children provide this good to society that every¬one gets to enjoy, whether or not you incur the costs of raising them. So there should be more government support for raising them.” Other economists say, “No, of course not. All the benefits of children are private, so the cost should be private as well.” I find that a really interesting debate, and I like to leave it up to my students to discuss. I don’t force them to reach a decision point. We definitely haven’t come to a consensus in any of my classes.
How do you like to spend your free time?
My students all know this, because I talk about it all the time: I like to hang out with my dog and go hiking or skiing in the mountains of Vermont. He’s a recent rescue from Oklahoma named Rollo, like the Viking not the candy. He’s a chocolate lab with some caramel spots on him. So ironically, he does look like the candy.
Interview condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Jacqueline Strenio, PhD, teaches classes on Health Economics and Policy, Public Finance, Structure and Operation of the World Economy, and the business capstone class, Administrative Strategy and Policy.