Despite economics having been a random choice of studies as an undergraduate for Hugh Neary, Economics professor and current Associate Director of the Vancouver School of Economics, it has taken become a life-long focus for him – leading to research on a myriad of macroeconomics topics including labor markets and socialist industries. After finishing his PhD at The University of California, Berkeley, Hugh moved to Vancouver to become an economics professor at UBC. As an economic teacher and researcher, a job he finds to be one of the most “satisfying and liberating” in the world, he highlights the freedom one gets to dive into what one finds most interesting. He also enjoys teaching, especially when the audience is genuinely attentive to what he has to say, because of all the learning you acquire while preparing for a class. When Hugh is not teaching or researching you can find him at any of the events organized by the Vancouver School of Economics Undergraduate Society.
At the moment I am working on deciphering how sacred goods are interpreted and transacted. ‘Sacred goods’ are goods that people will not exchange in a market because they are sacred for them in some way. Land will be a typical example, something of great cultural significance. We are trying to model out in economic terms what does it mean to have a good that is sacred and how does it get transacted. I became interested in it because my coauthor, Mukesh Eswaran, was very interested in sacred goods transactions and he drew me into it.
It is extremely liberating, a really nice experience. I worked for companies before where you had to do what other people told you to do and also stuff that was not always very interesting. But as a researcher you get to choose your own topic, like sacred goods, and you get to work on it. It is tremendously satisfying when you figure stuff out and you can actually write up something. You are taking an idea from zero to wherever you want to take it.
When I was in graduate school. I went to grad school because I really enjoyed learning and the academic lifestyle appealed to me. Once you end up in a PhD program you eventually realize that what you are being trained for is academia. In that sense it was a sequence of decisions for me but I never had any blinding light on the road to the master. It organically emerged. They were a series of myopic decisions.
I worked for two years before I went to university. I knew a ‘9 to 5 job’ for fourty years was not really my thing. When I got to university I realized academic life was much more satisfying and suitable than a desk job.
Economics was a random choice. I used to study at night school in London and on my way to and from my classes I used to pass by the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. I thought that had a wonderful ring to it. So when I finally decided to go back to school in Dublin, in Trinity, there was economics and political science and that was it. I had no interest in anything else nor did I have to sacrifice something else for it. And it has turned out to be a very interesting choice.
I like teaching when I have interested students and I don’t like teaching when I don’t have them. I actually enjoy imparting knowledge that I have. If I know something and I understand it I like explaining it to somebody else. One of my colleagues used to claim that the reason we write academic articles in the first place is to prove to ourselves that we understand something. I think there is a lot of truth in that. Teaching is a bit like that as well: you have to focus on something and really understand it in order to teach it in the best way possible. So teaching is rewarding just because you learn stuff while preparing. And it is also rewarding when you have students who are receptive to your knowledge.