George-Levi Gayle, the John H. Biggs Distinguished Professor in Economics, will take the helm of the economics department on July 1. The Ampersand sat down with Gayle to talk about his work, the department, and importance of economics.
Can you tell us a bit about your own research?
I work on causal inference in terms of data and structural estimation, which means using data to inform policy. I examine either the impact of a policy that’s been implemented or the potential impact of a policy proposal in a hypothetical situation. The specific issues I deal with are inequality, human capital accumulation, and the labor market — studying things like pay gaps, intergenerational mobility, and parental leave.
What’s new in WashU economics?
There’s excitement and momentum in the WashU economics department. We have world-renowned leaders in macroeconomic policy working for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, as well as a dynamic cohort of early career scholars researching economic theory. They are focused on the allocation of scarce resources — everything from kidney transplants to broadband.
I’m also excited because we are one of the most diverse economics departments in the country. Economics is very sparse when it comes to diversity in gender and race. Soon, however, we’ll be top in diversity of schools that have Black representation in economics. There is still more work to be done when it comes to gender diversity, but we are committed to making progress on this front, too. The department and the Dean’s office have actively worked on diversifying voices in economics, and we are very proud of our success so far in attracting and retaining talented researchers.
Can you explain to the layperson the importance of economics?
Economics is about resource allocation and incentive, so it touches on many aspects of life from cradle to grave. Let’s use the example of Social Security, which is an issue at the end of life. Still, Social Security depends on the development of human capital and people working in the labor force, and that has to do with early childhood education at the beginning of life. If you think about inequality at the end, you also have to think about it at the beginning. Some people seem to be lucky in life, others not so much. That’s why we study things like social justice, the war on drugs, and family structure. In economics, we disentangle luck from systematic components.