Q&A with economics professor Andrew Levin

by Debora Hyemin Han | 9/23/16 12:40am

It can be hard to connect the classroom to real life, but economics professor Andrew Levin is trying to do just that. Levin, whose past ventures include giving technical advice to the Bank of Ghana and working for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, wants to teach students not just how to make connections between theory and practice, but to show them what being an economist in the real world looks like.

Levin was hired last year and taught his first class this past spring. Almost immediately, he noticed a different academic spirit in Dartmouth students compared to those of other schools where he has taught. Levin was previously a professor at the University of California San Diego, Georgetown University and Columbia University. Levin recalled the graduate student-focused culture that he studied in as a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University. He noted that this was a stark difference from the attention Dartmouth undergraduates insist on and receive.

“One thing I found in the spring already is that Dartmouth students have pretty high expectations for the quality of teaching,” Levin said. “It’s a real challenge to me to be an outstanding teacher and not just on the punch-the-clock teaching side of things.”

In the interest of innovating upon his teaching methods, Levin plans to adapt the “real world” experience he has accrued over the years into the classroom. He is currently working with the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning to incorporate this style of experiential learning in his classes, stressing necessary “real world” skills such as working on a team.

Whether at a nonprofit organization, investment bank or international organization such as the International Monetary Fund, Levin has found that almost everything depends on teamwork. Though not the first person to stress the concept, he wants to emulate it to the fullest degree by creating a classroom environment in which he acts as a manager and the students are team members who teach each other.

“It seems ideal to me to make that a part of the classroom experience and not just something that people suddenly discover when they go to the outside world,” Levin said.

In a similar vein, Levin wants to impart the fast pace and unpredictability that comes with working in the real world, he said, a reality that he himself has grown to understand gradually through his research. Thus, he seeks what he calls a “robust” strategy, meaning one that is capable of holding up even when things do not go as planned.

Levin’s approach offers an applied angle to a field that can seem abstract to students. Below are highlights from The Dartmouth’s conversation with Levin about economic theory and practice.

What’s the bridge between theory and actually making a public policy? How do you judge which is more important when facing issues?

AL: One problem that often happens with academics is that they tend to be too dogmatic about the right solution for the real world. Every theory abstracts from certain practical details, and the question is: did you get all the critical stuff in the theory and the stuff you left out, it doesn’t really change the conclusions or not. Usually an element of, “take this with a grain of salt,” some kind of caution or disclaimer, of “if you’re willing to make the following assumptions and you can get these nice, neat answer answers but just keep in mind that we’ve made a lot of assumptions here. Some academics, many of my colleagues actually, are really good at doing that, which is why they’ve been effective in forming public policy but there are plenty of academics who forget about all the assumptions that they made in order to get the nice neat conclusion and all they do is promote the conclusion without some of the cautionary notes.

Another problem is that academics typically, they can work on a long time frame. Some academics work on a book for five, 10 years, you know, perfecting it and making it comprehensive and making sure that everything in it is accurate. Public policy oftentimes they’re faced with a very specific decision that has to be made quickly where they don’t have the time to do that kind of careful, thorough research for years before they make a decision. So the extent to which academics help provide research that’s ready to go when the policy issues come up, that can be invaluable. It’s also the case that when there’s a policy issue comes up and there is no good research to inform it, the decision has to get made anyway. But then hopefully that would trigger some new research that over time — because oftentimes the public policy is recurring.

What’s your favorite economic theory and your favorite economic policy?

AL: A really important development in monetary economics over the last few decades is the extent to which it’s critical for the central bank to communicate clearly to the public. The reason that’s so critical is because businesses and consumers and investors are all making decisions that depend on their expectations about what’s gonna happen down the road. If the policy is very opaque and confusing, it’s very difficult for people to make those decisions and that uncertainty can actually hurt the economy. So there’s a real benefit for the central bank to have a clear strategy that it explains as clearly as possible to the public. This is something that’s been a dramatic change; if you go back 50 years ago, even 30 years ago, central banks tended to be very secretive, very mysterious. In the 1990s, there was a book written about the Federal Reserve called “Secrets of the Temple” and the idea was that Alan Greenspan who was the chairman was the high priest who would give occasional, mysterious remarks about the economy or what the Fed was going to do. That era’s pretty much over; I think most economists, and certainly I’m persuaded myself, that the central bank really needs to make a strong effort to have a compelling strategy and to explain that strategy clearly to the public so that members of the public can make good decisions.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.