Only months before Covid brought campus to a standstill, Assistant Professor Ashley Craig joined the University of Michigan Department of Economics. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Professor Craig recently completed his education at Harvard where he received his Doctor of Philosophy in Economics and his Master’s in Economics.
Prior to Harvard, Professor Craig worked for the Reserve Bank of Australia as an Economist. Comparing this role to that of a professorship, he said, “There is a genuine cultural difference. Economics in the academic world is much more competitive, and occasionally aggressive. We have heated debates about ideas, and are highly critical of each other’s work. Central bankers are more cautious about expressing their opinions, and they disagree more politely and diplomatically.” Drawn to the University for its high calibre faculty and student body, he mentioned another reason for his career change. “The thing I love is my freedom to study what I think is important in whatever way I think is right. Working for a public institution like the Reserve Bank is rewarding in its own way, but it doesn’t give you that kind of freedom.”
Within the realm of economics, Professor Craig has focused his attention on several different venues. “Taxes are a big one. Discrimination. Ethics and social welfare. COVID-19. The wondrous thing about public finance is that we have tools to say interesting things about a broad array of problems.” Following his interests, he completed a project regarding student discipline with David C. Martin of Harvard last year. They were looking for new evidence of who, if anyone, benefits from the relaxation of student discipline. “While studying a reform in New York City that eliminated low-level suspensions, we saw a substantial benefit that was surprisingly shared across a wide variety of students -- not just those who we think would have been suspended. The evidence we have suggests those benefits are driven by improvements of student-teacher relationships, and other elements of school culture.”
With the Coronavirus directly affecting his first semester on campus, Professor Craig turned a critical eye on the pandemic, authoring a paper, Taxes as Pandemic Controls,with University of Michigan professor, James R. Hines, Jr. “Jim and I both study taxation, and taxes are one of the key ways in which we try to influence peoples' decisions for the greater good in situations where one person's decision affects the welfare of others. The idea that we focus on in the paper is that the existing tax system actually nudges people already, and mostly in the right direction.” As to why this subject was chosen for exploration, he added, “It is largely because we think it is important and definitely not appreciated by those who were already writing about Covid-19 -- let alone by those who weren't writing about it!”
This winter, Professor Craig is teaching Econ 490: Advanced Public Economics, a course deemed rigorous by his students due in part to the focus placed on an essential skill, “Writing! No one else teaches them writing! The course was designed to challenge students in every way, and I set assignments that I would find hard myself. They have to develop analytical skills, synthesize background information about the economy and economic policy, understand and criticize empirical methods, solve problems, and then communicate all that within very tight page limits, to multiple different audiences!” For each assignment, students answer a complicated policy question in five pages for an academic audience. Then, they tailor it for a policy audience with a shorter, three page version. Emphasis is maintained on the clarity of the writing and, regardless of how technical the topic, students are instructed to avoid technical language.
Thinking about how students interact with economics in general, the Professor said, “I worry sometimes that people come away from economics courses -- or whole degrees with thinking that the models we write down, with their accompanying assumptions, are meant as a literal description of the world. That seems to underlie particularly confusing views like "economists think markets are almost always efficient," "distribution doesn't matter," or "economists think everyone is hyper-rational." We think none of those things, and that is something I try to make clear to them. We write down these models to capture and formalize insights that were not obvious without them. Then we take the conclusions with a grain of salt, understanding what drove them, and what the model was missing. The same goes for empirical work, and our interpretation of it.”