Q&A with Judith Dean, Economist and co-editor of Attacking Global Poverty in the Developing World
Q&A with Judith Dean, Economist and co-editor of Attacking Global Poverty in the Developing World

Q&A with Judith Dean, Economist and co-editor of Attacking Global Poverty in the Developing World

When we try to live as followers of Jesus, our priorities are no longer our own. These new priorities give new direction and purpose to our work on many questions in economics.

March 20 th 2009

(The views expressed in this paper are those of the author alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the US International Trade Commission, or any of its individual Commissioners.)

Comment: In your paper "Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research" you suggest three broad roles for the Christian economist—that of philosopher, physician, and advocate—and identify yourself as a physician. You then go on to write that "the impact of our faith is not seen, necessarily, in a difference in our technical methodology from our secular counterparts. It is seen first in our choice of issues to research. Because of our faith, certain issues must be made priorities and must be addressed wisely." In the present circumstances, what do you believe are the priority issues demanding the attention of physician-economists?

Judith Dean: Some issues are always priorities and are readily apparent from reading the Bible. Two that stand out to me are global poverty and care for the environment. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we see God's call to care for those in poverty and those less fortunate than ourselves. In today's economy, that may mean your neighbor. But the majority of the world's severely impoverished live in Africa, Asia, and parts of Latin America. Promoting development in these parts of the world should be a priority for Christian economists. From the Bible, we also clearly see our mandate to be stewards of God's creation. Understanding the nexus between economic activities and environmental quality and encouraging sustainable development should also be a priority.

But it would be a mistake to limit our work as "physician-economists" to only those issues which the Bible explicitly mentions. Other priorities in economics become apparent if we think in terms of God's call for us to love our neighbor as ourselves. For example, in today's world many are suffering from the breakdown in our housing and financial markets. Solutions to these problems would go a long way towards loving our neighbor. At times such as this, the media often plays to the fears of people, such as suggesting that trading with poor countries—especially in IT or other services—means losing American jobs. Helping people understand the benefits of mutual trade will go a long way towards loving our neighbors—in other countries as well as in our own.

Other priorities God lays before us, such as justice and mercy, point toward many more economic issues that are worthy of our attention. Perhaps one way to put it is that when we try to live as followers of Jesus, our priorities are no longer our own. These new priorities give new direction and purpose to our work on many questions in economics.

Comment: In the same paper you go on to say that "the impact of our faith [...] is seen [...] second in our evaluation of potential solutions. Here we should find our Biblical view of our fellow human beings (e.g., our call to love others as ourselves) influencing our choice of policy proposals. Our impact will be visible, to the extent that our work moves forward our understanding of the problem and helps to either remove deleterious policy choices or put in place those which are beneficial." In your particular areas of expertise, at the intersection of trade policy, trade and development, and statistical research, what—at the broadest level or in the vaguest sense!—are the most beneficial few policy proposals that you would wish to see adopted by governments or other large-scale actors in the global political economy?

JD: This is a difficult question. Economies are characterized by many layers of inter-connectedness, so that addressing one or two problems but not others may not, ultimately, be beneficial. But with that caveat in mind, I would like to see policymakers' views of global trade change in two ways. I'd like to see more trade and less trade policy.

Let me explain what I mean. Unfortunately, global trade has too often been viewed as a zero-sum game, where if one country benefits, it is at the expense of others. But this is just not the case. More access to markets globally generally gives more opportunities for citizens of each country to do what they do best, and to thrive by exchanging their products for those which other countries do best. If anything, such open exchange actually helps increase the size of the global "pie," allowing all countries the chance for larger benefits. So I'd like to see governments promote freer trade.

Unfortunately, the "Buy America" part of the recent US stimulus package is an example of a sharp turn in the wrong direction—back toward the painful policies of the interwar period. At that time, many countries were artificially depreciating their currencies and imposing high trade barriers to stimulate their own exports and block out imports from other countries. In economics, these are referred to as "beggar thy neighbour policies," because they allegedly benefit the home country at the expense of other nations. But in reality, such policies also hurt the countries that impose them, since they dramatically shrink global trade and provoke retaliation. The costs are so serious that after World War II, there was a major international effort to prohibit "beggar thy neighbour policies." Especially in the midst of today's crises, I would like to see government adopt "love thy neighbour" policies instead, and keep markets open.

At the same time, I'd like to see less use of trade policy as a tool to address international political, social or environmental problems. Too often, it seems that a trade embargo is seen as the way to convince another government to change its political stance on a social or political issue, or a trade restriction as the way to reduce a problem like environmental degradation. When the problem at hand is only indirectly related to trade, these are very poor policy tools. They usually won't achieve the objective, and they will always generate unintended costs that can be very damaging. So I'd like to see less use of trade policy for non-trade problems.

Judith Dean, in Rwanda with World Relief

Comment: You have pled with Christian economists that more should be taking on the role of physician, rather than philosopher or advocate. If a student with an undergraduate major in economics wanted to respond to your plea, what would you recommend to them as guidelines when they must decide between graduate education options? And what kinds of work experience would you most recommend?

JD: For some students, going directly to graduate school is the best choice; for others, gaining work experience first is a good idea. For those students with an interest in international or development economics who would like to work first, I'd recommend looking into opportunities with non-governmental organizations or international institutions. Often this work allows you to learn first-hand what really interests you, and helps in choosing the right type of graduate program, or the research topics you want to pursue. You can also begin a graduate program and pursue an internship during the summer that relates to your studies. I spoke with one graduate student a few years ago who was studying development economics but had an internship at a major financial institution. He gained a new sense of the role banking and finance has in economic development, and changed his approach to his career.

In choosing a graduate school, I would recommend that a student evaluate two things: the overall quality of the program and the availability of faculty who teach in fields of interest. The first is clearly important, in order to be well grounded in economics. But it's also important for people like me who may not know what part of economics they really want to study when they first contemplate graduate school. The second is important because not all excellent programs have strengths in all fields. If you are passionate about international economics, you need a program in which a number of good faculty members teach in that area and work on research that interests you. You can learn a lot by reading the Ph.D. program websites, visiting schools that fit your interests, and talking with faculty members.

An important fact of life is that economics today requires a good deal of mathematical training. This is where I see many students caught unawares. Math is to economics as Latin is to classics or Hebrew and Greek are to theology. Fortunately, those who haven't done enough math can usually pick up the missing courses in almost any local university or college. Since most graduate programs describe their expectations regarding math training, I'd recommend that prospective students read those websites and pursue the prerequisite coursework before applying. Otherwise their application may simply be passed over.

I'd also highly recommend that students investigate the Association of Christian Economists (ACE). There are many members in academic and government positions, as well as in international organizations and the private sector. They can offer wisdom on programs they teach in and schools they attended themselves. They can also offer ideas on careers after graduate school.

Comment: What three or four books (explicitly Christian or not) would you recommend to Christians who are not economists but who want to understand the economic issues of our time?

JD: I'm afraid my book list might be quite long, and would include many classics. So let me confine myself to the fields in which I work. For those who would like to understand more about global poverty, I would recommend William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth and Jeffrey Sachs's The End of Poverty. These two brilliant economists give very different views on what needs to be done to help relieve poverty, and will help people who care get a better sense of the facts and the issues. And they are never boring!

For those who are interested in globalization and want to understand more about the debate, I would recommend Jagdish Bhagwati's In Defense of Globalization. Another brilliant economist, Bhagwati combines incisive understanding of international and development economics with a great wit. He delves into issues of great concern to Christians (environment, child labour, labour standards, predatory corporations, outsourcing and jobs), and helps sort out myth from reality.

I'd also like to recommend the journal Faith and Economics. It is produced by ACE, and has many good articles and book reviews. Part of its purpose is to help the broader Christian community understand the economic issues of our time.

Comment: Are there ways in which you have seen the connections between Christian economists and Christian practitioners in economy-related areas of work (business people, labour activists, development assistance professionals, policy makers, and so forth) work well? In what ways can these connections be appropriately strengthened?

JD: In our recent book, Attacking Poverty in the Developing World (co-edited with Julie Schaffner and Stephen Smith), we bring together academics and practitioners to learn from each other about how to solve global poverty better. Our premise is that we have much to learn from each other, and that together we could probably make a much bigger difference than either group operating alone. At the risk of stretching my earlier analogy, this would be like bringing the medical researchers together with the health practitioners. We think the benefits for both could be great!

One exciting way in which I see this happening is Christian economists helping Christian relief and development organizations develop tools to evaluate the effectiveness of their work on the ground. For practitioners working in microfinance or child health programs, for example, there is a strong sense that these programs are really helping needy people. But practitioners have few tools available to measure how well programs are working, or to determine what changes might really improve their effectiveness. They also have little time to devote to evaluation. Here, the academic has much to offer the practitioner.

Academic economists have much experience in designing and carrying out statistical evaluations of programs. But they often do not have a good understanding of the needs of poor communities, of what a poor family's goals are, or what that family views as beneficial. Here the practitioner has much to offer the economist.

We would like to see these kinds of collaborations more often. One way to jump-start this would be to have a website where academics and their students interested in collaborative work could connect with practitioners who have opportunities for such collaborative work. Some of us in ACE have begun to work on this. We hope to find some technical and financial support so that we can help make this happen!

Judith Dean
Judith Dean

Dr. Judith M. Dean is Professor of International Economics in the International Business School at Brandeis University. She graduated from Gordon College with a B.A. in economics and went on to Cornell University for an M.A. and a Ph.D. in economics. Judy has spent most of her career in academics, first as assistant professor at Bowdoin College, and then as associate professor at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Prior to joining Brandeis, she was a Senior International Economist in the Research Division, Office of Economics of the US International Trade Commission in Washington, DC.  She has been a consultant to the World Bank, and a Visiting Scholar at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi, India, and the Clayton Yeutter International Trade Program, University of Nebraska. 


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