Henry Siu is an Associate Professor in Economics here at VSE, and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is a macroeconomist whose research focuses on business cycles and the consequences of macroeconomic forces on the labour market. He has spent time as a visiting researcher at the Federal Reserve Banks of Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Louis, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the Bank of Canada. He was also the inaugural recipient of the Bank of Canada Governor’s Award in recognition of my contribution to macroeconomic research. On top of this impressive resume, he also reportedly makes some pretty amazing American-style barbeque.
Currently my research topics mainly focus on a phenomenon economists call job polarization, or the idea that we are increasingly seeing a disappearance of middle class jobs, such as manufacturing jobs, due to automation. I think it’s an important topic to examine because its results contribute to the rising inequality in today’s society. I focus on the macroeconomic implications of that.
To be a researcher I believe implies a certain curiosity about the questions that come into our minds naturally. With this comes a responsibility to investigate these questions with an open mind. As an economic researcher I am interested, like other social scientists, in the human condition and how people make decisions in daily life. Economic researchers are also scientific in that we try to be as rigorous about how we look at these phenomena as possible.
You know, it’s hard to know when and how these things happen. I was always inclined towards math, and in the first two years of university I took a variety of social sciences. In third year I was really inspired by an economics course I took. I found it was a way to rigorously and carefully address questions and hopefully come up with answers to them that were not just well-orated argument. I realized that an economics approach is the way to look at those questions, the way to address those issues.
Haha, I don’t think I had any idea. I lived in residence on campus for a couple of years, and if you’d seen my haircut and the posters in my dorm room you would have thought I wanted to be a rock star.
I think the exciting thing about being a professor is doing the research and communicating the findings to others, to students and colleagues. I can’t imagine a better job than sharing your thoughts and ideas with others and influence the way they understand their questions. At a research university, sometimes the personal connection is lost between professor and student. This is the trade-off of being at a research university, since at smaller colleges there generally isn’t as much time devoted to research. I suppose the biggest challenge is to find meaningful interactions in light of this.
I think the most obvious thing as an economist is that you put on a very specific set of glasses to look at social issues in the policy-making world, especially when studying macroeconomics. When you think about important issues like climate-change, education policy, minimum wage policy, whether we should be funding public transit, whether we should be using congestion pricing, whether we should be taxing carbon or putting tolls on bridges and others… economics gives you a very powerful set of tools to look at these issues. It can lead you to understand why things should be done or addressed one way and not the other, and when things are one way - as opposed to the other - what the implications of that will be. It boggles my mind that in policy-making spheres sometimes people don’t know how to look at the question or even sometimes necessarily know how to frame the question. This can often lead to… well, let’s call them unusual outcomes.
I’ll put it this way: economists are very good at making assumptions and simplifying the question at hand. When you make good assumptions you come to very clear answers. This teaches you a couple things: one, the power of making assumptions; two, that the assumptions you make have very powerful impacts on your answers. The result of this, in my opinion, is that economists have a great ability to be humble, because when we’re wrong we can realize it’s an issue with our starting place, with our assumptions.
I think people should study economics because it gives them powerful tools to look at the way the world works and gives them insights on the basic forces that govern their everyday interactions with people in everyday life. I think the way the world is moving these skills will be even more valued over time. We already see it in journalism: with examples of people like Nate Silver and websites like fivethirtyeight or Vox or the New York Times we see people becoming more focused on data and being quantitative and fact-driven in the way they study news-related phenomenon.
Understand that you are given many tools in your coursework that are of value. What is really important, though, is how you use these tools. My biggest recommendation is to try to develop and appreciate your problem-solving skills and your ability to ask questions.
I’m a pretty serious home cook. A lot of my summer is spent staying up all night doing American-style barbecue, roasting meat for 12-18 hours. I also don’t think there are that many people nowadays who take the trouble to roast their own coffee beans.