We Are Essex

Alex Clymo's story

Alex Clymo in his office

"You learn that some questions can’t be answered the way that you think."

I’ve just started teaching this academic year. I’m teaching first year modules in macroeconomics, introduction to economics and a master’s course on monetary economics and it’s been really amazing to finally be able to take everything that I ever learned from the different people that taught me and make my own course. I try to teach people the things that I really think are important and inspiring.

Economics is the blend of thinking about real people and real issues and things that you can really relate to because it’s things you do every day like go to work and buy things and save. Whilst also being able to be taught how to think about the world in a completely different way, which I continue to think is one of the most useful things we teach people is how you digest something so complicated as the entire world economy, or even just the UK economy which is still 60/70 million people, millions of firms and you can boil it down into simple concepts that make sense like supply and demand. It seems so simple but captures so much.

You can’t understand something as complicated as the economy without making models, and those models fundamentally change the way you think and I think that if I look at myself age 16 to how my brain works now it’s kind of insane how economics rewired my brain; I’m unrecognisable. If you talk to anyone else who has done economics, even after undergraduate, they say the same thing. It’s the way it teaches you to think. If I compare myself to my friends who haven’t studied economics, it’s the way you think more logically. You’re trained to distil the world into manageable chunks and learn that some questions can’t be answered the way that you think they can be answered. It’s absolutely brilliant. Economics is all the benefits of teaching you to think about the world in logical ways like a science degree, but combined with learning about stuff that’s practical and you can apply to the real world.

It’s thinking about incentives people face, how do people react to incentives, that’s what makes it so powerful. I remember thinking about this when I was in my undergrad, the incentives that people think about when they go to dinner. It’s something most people can relate to when they go to dinner with a big group of people and you think ‘I wonder if we’re going to split the bill? Because if we are then maybe I’ll order a bigger meal, because I’m not going to pay for all of it’. That’s not how I tend to be, I’m not going to change my choice based on whether I’m footing the bill, but some do think ‘well if I’m footing the bill then that guy over there is ordering the steak, and now I’m paying for 1 nth of his steak so maybe I’ll order a steak’. So if you have 10 people round the table, how you organise yourselves and the rules of the game are determined by if you’re paying for yourself or splitting the bill. It’s something so simple but you can study that during economics with the tools you learn in your undergraduate. If you had a model that showed how much people spend if they split the bill vs how much they spend if they pay for themselves, you show they’re going to spend more if they split the bill because they’re worried about others having the bigger meal. That’s why I love economics.

So I always wanted to do research to understand. When I realise I can use a tool I’ve learnt to explain something important that’s amazing and that’s why I do this. I remember very distinctly when I came up with that paper because I’d known that there was a difference between what was happening in the UK and US.

Then I remember tinkering around with someone else’s paper about financial crises and how to model them, and just digging around working out how that model worked and figuring out their mechanisms. Then there was this moment where I realised ‘I can use this to figure out both what happened in the UK and the US just by changing one thing’. It was really lovely for me because I can’t even tell you now where the inspiration came from, it was really like a light-bulb moment. I can’t really trace the genesis of it. Something clicked. In terms of research and the glorified idea of it, I really liked how that paper came into being. It was something that needed to be explained and a light-bulb goes off in my head while I’m sitting in my dingy apartment doing my PhD and I think I can make a stab at explaining what’s going on.


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