For the past year, I have assisted with research on Iran in the Virginia Tech economics department. Some of the research encompasses what might be called standard economic indicators — calculating unemployment, estimating the rate of inflation — but it also delves deeply into what I consider a more human view of the Iranian economy.
The professor I work for, Salehi-Isfahani, is a strong believer in the Lucas-Becker approach to economic growth, which emphasizes human skills, knowledge, creativity, ambition and effort as determinants of a country’s economic success.
The Lucas-Becker approach, especially as implemented by Salehi, stands in contrast to what I consider the more abstract approach to economics encountered in the economics 2005 and 2006 courses.
In these courses, concepts such as physical capital, human capital, productivity and growth are introduced as general ideas, but their particulars are sometimes neglected or not fully emphasized. While every trained economist understands the importance of details, I have found that this point does not always make it to freshmen students, myself included.
In my work as a tutor and in conversations in the honors residence hall and economics department, I have found that students often give up on economics because they see it as the memorization of equations rather than an insightful depiction of social interaction. Until my junior year, I probably counted myself among this group, not seeing much difference between my math and economics classes.
My view changed dramatically, however, when I began taking subject-specific economics courses.
Health care, development and Middle East economics were among my three favorite classes, providing me with specific, practical knowledge.
At the time, I had rarely encountered that type of social insight in courses outside of the economics department. I began to view math as a means and not an end, and I worked at understanding why certain variables appeared in an equation, rather than just memorizing them.
Soon, I began considering the world in economic terms — in specific, logically consistent definitions and explanations. I had done this to some extent my whole life, but economics gave me a language for it. It was somewhat like discovering a new favorite author and wishing I’d found him sooner.
My work now further focuses on details. Because Salehi’s research is influenced by the Lucas-Becker approach, it deals with human issues, such as family structure, fertility, education, gender equality, the lives of rural poor and the impact of government policies on average people’s livelihoods.
I have always felt human relationships and individual reactions to policy were more important for explaining economic growth than the introductory theory, and I have now found sympathy for this view.
I have assisted with projects on the improving education prospects for Iranian girls, the effect of family planning on fertility of Iranian women, and the dramatic increases in access to electricity, water and indoor plumbing for rural Iranians since the 1979 revolution.
I also encountered the plight of Iranian youth, where men and women face unemployment rates of about 23 percent and 46 percent, respectively. My work has been, in many ways about this generation, and these people generally have families and drive Iran’s economy, all while training the next generation to take over.