Face Time: James Hughes — This award-winning and popular Bates prof knows his economics … but no, he can’t help you with your taxes.

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Economics courses aren’t, generally, among the most popular of college classes. Unless you’re at Bates College and the person teaching them is James Hughes — this year’s winner of the college’s Ruth M. and Robert H. Kroepsch Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Name: James (Jim) Hughes

Age: Sigh … 53

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Penn.

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Current town: Waterville

Married/relationship/single: Married

Job: Thomas Sowell Professor of Economics 

How did you become interested in micro-economic theory and economics? Never imagined myself as an economist. I wanted to be an astronaut, but by age 13, I was already too tall. I studied Middle Eastern history as an undergraduate, didn’t even like my first economics course. After living in Egypt for a year and a half as a student, and after doing a project on the economics of reducing pollution from a steel mill in Pittsburgh, I began to get serious about economics.

What makes economics cool? In college, you may choose to become a chemist, you may choose to become a musician or an historian. And your career is living that life you chose. After college, though, everyone “lives” economics, whether you want to or not. Students get drawn into economics because most everything we study is about the here and now. I love it when students, past and present, send me a story, or a link, or an anecdote about something they observed that fit into what we talked about in class. When I see students at reunion, maybe they are being nice, but so many of them tell me that they wish they had taken more economics. They don’t want to be economists, but there is so much going on in their lives that they want to understand.

I hear your classes are notoriously hard to get into. Why is that? I keep the door locked.

What’s the secret to teaching economics? Economics can be very theoretical, and you need to know a fair amount of that theory to succeed in the field. But almost no undergraduate falls in love with economics because they find the theory fascinating. I didn’t! I find that no matter what you are teaching, you have to always show students the promise of economics — what kind of questions can you answer once you master this stuff? What conversations can you be part of? So while I am teaching theory, we apply it to global warming, prescription drug prices, trade and the like. Not in-depth at this point, but enough to show students how far a little economics can take you. Once they see the power of the analysis, they are more willing to devote the time to mastering it.

How did you earn the Ruth M. and Robert H. Kroepsch Award for Excellence in Teaching? I don’t know, to be honest. Bates is full of great teachers who I admire and, truth be told, envy a bit for their talents. You can’t throw a stone on the Bates campus without hitting a great teacher. Not that I am recommending that you try. Why pick me? I am lucky enough to have some great students who thought enough of me to put my name in nomination. So I am lucky they studied with me.

What’s the best thing about teaching economics? It is so much fun to see students in the moment when that little cartoon light bulb over their head goes on. I never get tired of it. I love it when students surprise themselves with what they learned. When they reach beyond their grasp and succeed. Seeing them graduate, and watching them become even more wonderful, talented and successful as adults. Who wouldn’t love this job?

What’s the worst? Getting blamed for recessions.

Do people often have misconceptions about economics (or economics professors)? If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what stocks to buy or how to fill out their taxes …

You are now researching the disappearance of African-American jockeys from the thoroughbred racing industry at the turn of the 20th century. How is that connected to economics? Deb (my wife) and I have studied discrimination in many different settings. Lots of economists, historians, sociologists and others have studied the integration of American sports — baseball, basketball and the like. The case of African-American jockeys is unique. They were accepted and succeeded in the most popular sport of the day at a time when America was becoming more segregated and racially divided, often by law. Those wider trends seem to have had very little effect on black jockeys in the 19th century. Then, at the dawn of the 20th century, they are all but gone. What happened? It is one thing for segregation to keep blacks from ever entering a profession. It is another for employers to throw out their most successful workers. The how and the why of this “dis-integration” has not been adequately explained.

Your wife is also an economics professor. Who does your budget at home? No one. Separate accounts. Higher cost, fewer disagreements.

What’s your prediction for the current economy? (Also, when will my house get its value back?) If I knew, I would be selling a book rather than telling you. I don’t know what lies ahead. I do know that at the moment, very little has changed that would stop a new set of financiers from putting the economy into peril the exact same way they did before. As for housing, there is more than eight months of supply of existing homes on the market, and nine months supply of new homes (L/A may be more or less than this). Whatever the local excess supply is, until that supply is taken up, there isn’t much hope for upward pressure on prices.

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