How losing high-school classmates has made me an economist 


I grew up in a suburb in West Bengal in India, where I spent the first 25 years of my life. My high-school education was in a public institution where the large majority of students came from poor families. Every year I would lose some of my brightest classmates because they would have to drop out to find work. Their families could not afford for them not to work. Higher minimum wages, said the local politician, was the only way out of the cycle of poverty that was responsible for my friends' unfortunate fates. 

While pondering the potential of higher minimum wages in keeping my poor friends in school, on a fateful warm summer evening, in the last year of high school,  I found Paul Samuelson's "Economics" lying open on my father's desk. I stumbled upon the sentence that changed my life forever: 

“What good does it do a black youth to know that an employer must pay him $2 an hour if the fact that he must be paid that amount is what keeps him from getting a job?”

It struck a strange chord deep within. Digging in, I started realizing the power of economic logic in cutting through rhetorical populism abundant in the local politician's promise to fight for better minimum wages; I started realizing the amazing spectrum of relevance of economic logic.

The urge to learn more, to get to the heart of the problem, and to eventually do something about it, drove me to take up economics as my major in college. I started appreciating how all pressing social problems I grew up in the midst of were economic in nature. As my box of tools grew over the course of completing my Bachelor's and Master's degrees, so did my fascination about the wide applicability of the tools. I got hooked to the economic way of looking at the world around me, to making more sense of my social environment, to analytically examining the validity of heavy-handed political rhetoric. 

Now, and thereon...

And hooked I still am, perhaps even more so. Hooked to the "aha!" moments in research when I finally break new ground on a complex problem after a seemingly endless stretch of futile attempts. Hooked to the "light-bulb" moments in teaching when I see realization dawn in a student's eye after a crafty bit of lecturing. I crave such rewarding moments, and their pursuit is what an academic job offers. I am indebted to my great teachers, and to the thinkers who shaped the amazing discipline of economics.  These moments in research and teaching feel wonderful particularly because they feel like paying it forward.