Naci Mocan shakes up perceptions of economics

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LSU professor Dr. Naci Mocan is pushing the boundaries of research and examining the inner workings of our world through the lens of economics. Dr. Mocan, who holds the Ourso Distinguished Chair of Economics at LSU, is researching how every decision — where to go to college, whether or not to commit crime, how much alcohol to consume, when to give birth — can be tied to economics. The Istanbul native’s passion for illuminating the economic determinants of everyday decisions has led him to research spanning issues in the labor market, health care market, as well as hot-button subjects like the economics of crime, corruption and vengeance.

Dr. Mocan is one of the speakers for TEDxLSU 2017, which is coming up on March 11. He took a moment to discuss his work, inspirations and the field of economics.

What inspired you to study economics?

Actually, a history class. I was taking this history class and it became really clear that all the conflicts between nations are determined by economic conflicts. I discovered that while I was a math major at the time. That goes to show why it is important to expose college students to a variety of subjects. It was required for me to take this history class, but it changed my understanding of how history was shaped, so I switched to economics. I still did not know much about economics at that point, but I discovered that it is a very quantitative, rigorous subject.

If you had to convince a freshman to major in economics, what would you say?

I think that would be the best thing they would do for their lives because it is a way of thinking, really. It is a discipline that teaches you a way to look at the world, analyze the world, analyze how individuals behave. It’s a really powerful way of thinking about the world. The beauty is by going through this training of being an econ major, you basically understand why people behave the way they behave, even if sometimes the people themselves don’t know. It brings individuals to a different level of sophistication in terms of understanding the world around them. I would also tell them to really get to that level they need to have a strong mathematics background.

What is the biggest misconception the average person has about economics?

I think the biggest misconception the average person has about economics is that they would think economics is only about analyzing the stock market. That all economists only worry about GDP, recessions and unemployment rates. I think that’s what a majority of people believe, when in fact that’s a really narrow segment or specialization of economics. Again, the main thing economists do, in a broader sense, is analyze how individuals and how individual units make decisions.

What aspect of your career makes you excited to wake up and go to work everyday?

What gets me out of bed is the research I’m doing. The questions that I’m trying to answer, the questions that I’m asking. The struggle that goes with it to find the correct answer. That excitement can be really consuming. I tell this to my graduate students: if you don’t dream about what you are trying to answer, if you go to bed at night and don’t dream about it, if you don’t get up with excitement, if you don’t physically rush to your office, then you are not in the right profession.

So you dream about work-related questions, can you give me an example?

Some of them are technical things, but my days are from 8:30 a.m. to typically 6:30 or 7 p.m. at the office. Research is not a 9-5 job, it’s a 24-7 job. So the question that you are analyzing is always in your mind. Sometimes after dinner I try to watch TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, Project Runway or Top Chef to distract myself, but if I can’t do it I dream about it. This is almost like a joke, but sometimes you find the solution in your dreams, actually. It has happened to me once or twice.

If you hadn’t become an economist, what would you want to do for a living?

I would have been a soccer coach or the head of the soccer federation. I actually coached soccer for my daughter’s team for a long time. It’s a very analytic sport. It would be an interesting job.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Smoke a Cuban cigar and think.

Where do you buy groceries? Why?

My favorite store in this area is Trader Joe’s because they have the highest ratio of quality to price, in my opinion. There’s a good selection of items. Of course, they made the mistake of building that store 40-50 percent smaller than what it should have been.

What place do you think is the best kept secret in Baton Rouge?

I think the best kept secret in Baton Rouge is actually the academic quality of LSU. In my opinion, people don’t recognize that LSU has some world-class academic units. There are some departments that do cutting-edge research that changes and makes significant contributions to their field. I feel that is not very well known.

To learn more about Dr. Mocan or about TEDxLSU 2017, follow TEDxLSU on Facebook, Twitter, and <Instagram. Reserve your seat now to listen to Dr. Mocan’s talk, as well as the talks of all of the other TEDxLSU 2017 speakers.