June 1, 2011
Economist Helps Students Connect Personal and Public Questions
“The economic crisis, climate change, and widespread disinvestment in public systems demonstrate for me why the social sciences are important and different from other approaches to understanding the world,” says Associate Professor Michael Ash (economics and public policy). “The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences is at its best when we can impart to students a combined empirical, creative, and social approach to the world. Students need such skills to understand their own lives and to see how they are connected to a broader, public sphere.”
With a focus on economics and policy of health, environment, and labor, Ash is especially interested in environmental justice: understanding why and how some people have access to a better environment than others or face excess exposure to toxic pollution. In health and labor he has been focused on nurses. “Their work, so important for patients’ health and safety, is often underappreciated,” Ash says. “I study how nurses’ unions affect the organization and quality of work life and patients’ health outcomes.”
Most of Ash’s work is quantitative. “A really fun day involves arranging columns of numbers describing hospitals and patients and seeing how the numbers line up,” he says. “Waiting for statistical output is, for me, as exciting as waiting for the envelope at the Oscars!”
Despite such enthusiasm, it took Ash a long time to accept that economics was his destiny. “My course was set pretty early, probably by my sociologist mother (Roberta Garner) and mathematician father (J. Marshall Ash), both professors at DePaul University in Chicago. When I was about 14, my mother gave me a copy of After the Waste Land coauthored by UMass economist Sam Bowles. Still, I considered majoring in archaeology, architecture, and chemical engineering. One of my biggest successes was realizing I could enjoy a field even if I was good at it.”
George Akerlof, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2001, was Ash’s PhD advisor at Berkeley. “He was the best prepared professor I ever had,” Ash notes. “As his TA, I know that he produced a fresh set of notes for each class.”
Coming to UMass, Ash says, was a “dream come true. Economics here is unique among research universities in the U.S. The diversity of approaches is extraordinary and exciting. I’m impressed by how effectively my colleagues communicate across areas of interest, making connections between, say, the problem of paying for good childcare and the problem of climate change.” To learn the connection, click here. When the economy fell in 2008, the Economics Department, Ash says, saw it coming, and has the publications to prove it.
Ash has particularly enjoyed many co-teaching opportunities with colleague Bob Pollin. “He very effectively combines technical material with great stories,” he says. “We could all learn a lot from co-teaching; there should be more of it. Many other colleagues in economics and public policy have taught me by example and in collaborations.”
But Ash is being modest. His own teaching skills are superb, and he spends enormous amounts of time and energy helping students and colleagues. Ash teaches a wide variety of courses both in the Economics Department and the Center for Public Policy and Administration: Applied Econometrics, Economics and Public Policy, the Economics of Health, Intermediate Macroeconomics, and Introduction to Political Economy. Few professors teach such a broad array, and his students love him. Says Gerald Epstein, chair of Economics, “Our students are so lucky to have Michael as their professor. And we are so lucky to have him as our colleague.” In recognition, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences presented Ash the Outstanding Teaching Award this year.
“My favorite essay in the social sciences is the opening chapter of The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills,” says Ash. “It describes the leap that is needed to see events that seem personal and local—unemployment or divorce on the negative side or upward social mobility on the positive side—as actually fitting into a social structure. It’s not deterministic—choice matters—but there are structural constraints and paths. When I teach economics, I try to impart an appreciation for the intellectual leap that’s necessary to make the connection.”
As staff for President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers (1995–96), Ash learned that one of the most effective ways for teachers or researchers to influence policy is to bring basic insights from academic discipline to the policy table. “It’s often not the latest super-complex research finding but rather the clear and systematic application of material that’s covered in introductory courses that convinces decision-makers.”
For example, the Corporate Toxics Information Project, which Ash co-directs with Professor James K. Boyce, uses the simplest imaginable techniques (categorizing and adding) to present information on industrial toxic pollution. “We’ve had some success in changing corporate practices and in empowering communities to advance their right to clean air and water,” Ash says.
Studying economics at UMass, Ash thinks, helps students see relationships between personal and public questions: environmental, financial, economic and political. “We impart technical tools—modeling, statistics, optimization—but we also help students make these connections and develop their capabilities so that they can be effective citizens and make good decisions privately and publicly.”