Economics as Applied Social Science: To Inquire, to Teach, and to Serve

Article excerpt

As with most of the people who have been so honored by the Southern Agricultural Economics Association, I read several years' worth of papers presented by previous lifetime achievement award recipients. The papers fall into three general categories. First, there are those that examine the specific field that the honoree has worked in, from transportation to marketing to fisheries to macroeconomics and policy. These papers are interesting because they help to define not only the career of the presenter but also the leading path of the research in the profession.

Other honorees chose to look at the teaching or extension aspects of agricultural and applied economics. These papers give us a sense of how well we are fulfilling these vital parts of our mission, the changes that have occurred over a career in terms of the students we teach, or the methods we employ to talk to our clientele groups.

The third and largest category includes papers that discuss the state of the profession. They ask us to think about the philosophical underpinnings of agricultural and applied economics. They also illuminate the challenges to remaining relevant in a changing environment. These papers define careers in terms of the person's view of where we have been and where we are going.

None of these three categories seems a fit for my experiences.

My research career has ranged over several research topics, from energy use to marketing to transportation, to water resource economics to sustainable agriculture to social capital, and to my present interest in poverty, education and experimental economics. So, even if valuable, a discussion of all of these fields would exhaust the normal boundaries of patience.

Likewise my teaching career has spanned several levels, including community college, technical college, private colleges and universities, and undergraduate and graduate classes at the University of Georgia. I have enjoyed success in the classroom. In addition I have a small extension appointment related to my role as Director of the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program.

That leaves the third type of papers-valedictory musing on the state of the profession. The problem here is that, after reading the many fine presentations that have gone before me, it seems rather presumptuous to add my voice to those thoughtful and often profound expressions of experience.

So this leads me to one of two conclusions. Either the lifetime achievement selection committee got this wrong (a possibility that I will leave to others to evaluate) or my award is in large measure due to the approach I have taken to issues facing our profession for the past 27 years. I'll go with the latter. When I look at the letters that were submitted to support my nomination it appears to me that what stood out in my record was as much about how I have approached being an economist as the results of that approach.

Continuing to follow convention, I note that, in most of the presentations by past award honorees, there is a mention that their interest in agricultural economics was nourished by their backgrounds on a farm. Most mention the dairy or grain or general family farm that provided them with days of hard work and a love of the land and with a desire to understand the business behind their lives. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. I vaguely remember visiting a horse farm in Michigan with my Dad when I was young (it could have been a race track).

I have been fortunate to have been associated with two particularly important institutions over my entire adult life: the nation's first public university and the nation's first land grant university. Both the University of Georgia and Michigan State University have played a vital role in the education and development of the United States. They both derive their special place from the simple idea that higher education should be accessible to all Americans and that the university has a public role to playto inquire, to teach, and to serve. …