Professor Marcel Fratzscher, esteemed macroeconomist and president of the DIW Berlin, once again asks questions about economics and life in general to a peer in the field. This time, he has the pleasure of being joined by postdoctoral researcher Dr. Jesse Wursten, who generously agreed to take the hot seat in this exchange. Thus, the back-and-forth has been dubbed Fratzscher vs. Wursten, as is tradition. What follows is a conversation that offers insight into some of the challenges of balancing family with an economics career, the usefulness of economists when it comes to analyzing policy externalities, and more.
Jesse Wursten is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Economics and Business at KU Leuven in Belgium, and is funded by the Flemish Science Foundation (FWO); he is additionally affiliated with CWED-IRLE and UC Berkeley. Dr. Wursten’s main research focus is on applied labor economics. Other research interests of his include innovation economics and monetary policy.
MF: What is your favorite place on earth?
Jesse Wursten: Home.
MF: Outside of economics, what occupation would you choose if you could be absolutely anything?
JW: IT Entrepreneur. There”s something exciting about owning your own business that is hard to match in a classic employer-employee relation. In a way, it is the ultimate sign that what you do is relevant to other people, otherwise you wouldn’t have any customers. IT has the advantage of having relatively modest entry barriers, as you generally don’t need expensive equipment or large teams to get to a first product (you could make a bad mobile app in a day so to speak, which is unheard of for physical products). I also feel like it’s an industry where I have the right skills to succeed: once you’ve identified a gap in the market, you need to figure out a technical solution (programming), but also interface that solution with the customer, especially if the solution is to show data of some sort. This is exactly what you do during an empirical economics PhD: you gather data and develop code to address an issue and then need to explain your solution as clearly as possible in a paper.
So many apps fail at the customer interface aspect. For example, the app of an extremely popular brand of sports electronics produces post-workout graphs that are absolutely useless because a single outlier completely squashes all other data, or because the scales are not multiples of 5 (try interpolating between 13 and 20 on a smartphone screen).
MF: What is the virtue you appreciate the most?
MF: Your all-time favorite figure in economics?
MF: Your ideal student?
JW: Interested in the material, takes time to think things through beyond the obvious.
MF: What should be done to address gender bias in research in economics?
JW: I think there are two elements that make life especially hard for female researchers.
One person (the supervisor) holds tremendous power over doctoral students. As long as this remains true, sexual harassment will remain problematic in the profession as victims are extremely disincentivized to speak up as it could literally end their career (need those recommendation letters). One option would be to require each student to have at least one co-supervisor, who is not necessarily actively involved in the research project, but is always available for meetings and questions and can become a second source of recommendation letters, funding, … if issues arise with the main supervisor.
The profession is horrible for anyone looking to start a family and have reasonable working hours. This also affects men of course, but they tend to realize that later in life (based on purely anecdotal evidence). Women are also still looked at first when it comes to taking care of children (although it seems to be changing, especially in higher educated circles). As long as making a career in econ requires moving thousands of miles and thus completely upending any local networks you may have, the profession is a nightmare for family oriented people. Men can sometimes choose to have kids later in life (= when they are tenured), women do not have that freedom. Likewise, combining research, teaching and admin with a healthy family life is almost impossible in most places. As long as the community as a whole considers 40+ hour/week workers as motivated rather than toxic, this will remain a problem. I say toxic because careers in econ are close to a zero sum game. If too many people raise the (working hours) bar, this puts pressure on all others.
MF: What is the most promising current research field or issue in economics?
I’m biased as a labor economist, but I think one of the biggest questions of the coming decades is how we should structure our labor markets to maximize both efficiency and social welfare. The pandemic has shown that the demise of low-education jobs is not inevitable and the retirement boom catastrophe is still approaching without any sign of delay. What can be done to ensure that those who want to work, can do so, regardless of background and capabilities? How much should they earn for that work? Etc.
MF: Where does economic research have the most influence on policy-making?
Monetary policy is extremely research-based, probably because it is the domain of technocrats rather than politics. I also believe policy is mostly affected by “simple” high-level theory, often so simple we take it for granted. Empirical evidence can then inform the details, especially for theoretically ambiguous situations (e.g. how high should minimum wages be?). I am not convinced that complicated models or overconfident empirical analyses contribute much to how we organize the world, though the former might still serve intermediate purposes within the academic community.
MF: On what issues should policy listen more to economists?
Anything that involves potential externalities or second order effects. Economics offer simple yet potent frameworks to think about those situations, but these rarely seem to reach policymakers. The response to the gas crisis in Europe is a clear example. There are options there that bolster the purchasing power of the poor, reduce carbon emissions and prevent subsidies flowing into Russian coffers. Yet most countries went for simple but misguided policies that at best achieve the first and fail horribly at the latter two.
MF: What is your career advice to a young economics researcher?
Keep an open mind about career opportunities. A recent statistic showed that less than 10%* of PhD students stay in academia, yet everyone considers this the norm. Instead, use the PhD to identify your skills and interests and do not be afraid to pivot towards alternative careers if research and teaching turn out not to be your comparative advantage.
*The statistic came from our research support office, showing the share of FWO (the #1 science funder in Flanders) grantees that are still in academia a few years later.