1. IFS Annual Lecture 2017
2. Ely Lecture
Thirty years ago Mr Autor had no great ambition to launch new areas of economic investigation. Three semesters into an undergraduate degree at Columbia University he dropped out, in order to work out what exactly he wanted to do with his life. He had always been a tinkerer and interested in computers, and so he spent some time working in tech jobs: as a programmer for a hospital and then for a friend’s tech startup. The rigorously analytical way in which programming required him to think appealed to him, but the problems he was tackling sometimes felt trivial. Before the money he was earning grew too large to walk away from, he returned to university to study psychology.
That experience, too, frustrated him. His psychology work was the mirror image of his time spent coding: he was working on important problems which were maddeningly resistant to systematic analysis. Unsure what to do next, Mr Autor moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and began working with a Methodist church to teach computer skills to disadvantaged kids. That contributed to a budding interest in what exactly the computer age was likely to mean for workers. In the Bay Area, Mr Autor also met the woman he would marry, acquired the gecko earrings and decided, before long, to give academia another go. In 1992 he entered a public-policy graduate programme at Harvard University, and there, at the relatively ripe age of 28, he took his first economics course.
Economics hit the intellectual sweet spot. Here was the opportunity to apply systematic ways of thinking to important, real-world problems. And the problem in which he found himself most interested at the time was the way that new technologies affected labour markets. His thesis explored the impact of computerisation on temporary help workers. Upon finishing his work at Harvard he made the extremely unlikely leap from a public-policy graduate programme to the economics department at MIT, one of the most prestigious in the country.
Region: Just as a side note, when I first read your CV I thought, this is an unusual background. A lot of physics or math majors become economists, but unless you’re Daniel Kahneman, psychology is an unusual college major.
Autor: Yes, it all happened quite by accident. I didn’t even know what economics was, literally. I never had taken a class in it because I just thought it was kind of about money, and I always felt like, “Well, I like money, but I don’t want to study it.”
After I’d done this work in San Francisco for several years, I knew that I wanted to go on for something else, but I didn’t know what. I knew I would look like a really good candidate for a public policy master’s program, so I applied to Kennedy School. Once there, I thought I’d really like to study this question about technology and inequality, or something.
So I applied for the Ph.D. program. For that, of course, I was required to take the upper-level economics classes, and it was only there that I was like, “Oh, wow. This is actually sort of the combination of the questions I want to answer and the tools I want to use to answer them.” So that’s how I ended up in economics. I had to do major remedial education. I mean, I was taking Calc 1B with Harvard undergraduates when I was 30 years old! [Laughs]
So anyway, I consider myself very, very lucky to have fallen into economics, quite backwards and by accident, and then I got my Ph.D. obviously from the Kennedy School, so I was surprised, very surprised, to find myself in an economics department and at MIT.
“I would never waste an hour,’’ Autor, 53, says in a recent interview in his office overlooking the Charles River. “If I’m not working, I’m doing something else that’s useful.” That could include sailing with his son, skating as captain of the faculty ice hockey team, or taking electrical gadgets apart and putting them back together.
Economics is all about scarcity, and time seems especially scarce to Autor, who got a late start in the profession and feels he still has a lot of catching up to do — despite the prominence he’s achieved with groundbreaking studies of the impact of trade and technology on the US labor market. Autor’s substantial body of research on labor markets — 29 journal articles on subjects ranging from disability benefits to the minimum wage — is imbued with respect for the dignity of work, sympathy for the disadvantaged, and concern for the damage that unemployment inflicts on families and communities.
“Idleness is a terrible thing,” Autor says. “Work gives people’s lives structure and meaning. It gives them an identity. It gives them a social circle.” He disagrees with economists who think of work as the price we pay for being able to consume. “That’s just not at all accurate for what most of us do. We would pay to keep our jobs.”
For a scholar, he has an unusual amount of real-life experience: computer software consultant, teacher of underprivileged kids, administrative assistant in a hospital. All of that has given him a practical understanding of his subject and an inclination to use hard facts to test, and sometimes challenge, received economic theory.