Q & A with Jessica Irvine
SMH Economics Writer and author, Jessica Irvine.
1. How did you get into economics writing in the first place?
Originally, I wanted to study history at university. I went to high school in England and had landed a spot to study modern history at St Catherine's College, Oxford University. But I couldn’t afford the foreign student fees, so ended up returning to Australia to study Political Economy and Philosophy at Sydney University (in an attempt to replicate a popular UK degree ‘‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’’). It was one of my university lecturers who heard that Ross Gittins was looking for a new recruit and the rest is history.
I guess, like most people, what I want most is to understand the world around me. In my view, of all the disciplines, economics offers the most holistic way of explaining how society works, and, even more importantly, how it should work. It is all about how to allocate scarce resources - of time and physical stuff - to maximise individuals’ and society’s wellbeing or ‘‘utility’’. It is the fundamental ‘‘economic problem’’ of life, that while our wants are infinite, the means we have at our disposal to satisfy those wants are limited. It is this presence of scarcity that gives economics its purpose. And it’s why, I think that in heaven, when humans are set free of the constraints of scarcity, there will be no need for economists. For more, read this extract to my new book ‘‘Zombies, bananas and why there are no economists in heaven: The economics of real life’’.
2. Do you think there are any advantages to being a female economist?
No, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. I don’t subscribe to the theory that women have different cognitive abilities to men. I think it’s mostly social conditioning. It is true that, today, female economists are more prevalent in the fields of feminist economics, development economics and economics of the family. But I suspect that will change over time as our expectations of what women can and should do change too.
3. What is the most challenging topic you’ve had to tackle as an economics writer?
Wow, the word ‘‘productivity’’ springs to mind. To outsiders, it’s the most boring topic in the world, and usually mistaken simply for bosses wanting their workers to work longer hours. But to economists, it’s the key to just about everything. Economists believe that the only sure fire way to secure increases in the standard of living in the long term is to produce more from a fairly fixed supply of labour, capital and land. If you can produce more from less of those things, even better. But the mere mention of the word ‘‘productivity’’ is enough to send most people to sleep, so in a recent column I suggested we simply replace the word productivity with ‘‘creativity’’. We need to ‘‘create’’ more from what we have. Being creative is something you can aspire to, while being productive sounds laborious. I think it’s an example where use of language can make the difference between an economic argument that is dull and boring and one that people can relate to.
4. Who are your role models and why?
Ross Gittins. Well, der. Ross is the best economics editor this country has ever had and probably ever will have. His devotion to his readers is second to none. We in the media have a tendency to get caught up in whatever is the latest political debate - productivity, industrial relations, government debt. Ross has a firm and authoritative message on all of those things. But he doesn’t fall into the trap of imagining that these are the most important issues for readers. Your superannuation, your child’s education, your health care system, Ross writes about economics as it applies to what people really care about. And he writes it in a clear and accessible way. And we love him for it.
Michelle Bridges - It was from doing Bridges’ online ‘‘12 week body transformation’’ program that I learned the secrets of calories in and calories out. She has a bucket of personal charisma and drive that, through her online program, she has been able to infect many people with. I still frequently ask myself, when I want to have a burger, or couldn’t be bothered putting the shoes on for a run: WWMBD? What would Michelle Bridges do? She’d put her runners on, and JFDI (Just Flipping Do It - this is a family website after all...)
5. What’s the most unusual problem you’ve ever solved with economics?
You’re talking about my weight loss articles, aren’t you? Through doing Bridges’ program last year I encountered the most magical of all statistics - more exciting that the budget balance, the jobless rate or foreign debt. It’s the figure for the calorie deficit you need to build over time to shed one kilogram of fat. The figures is about 7,500 calories - and is roughly the calorie content of one kilo of fat. Weight issues are all about the supply of calories to the body versus the demand the body has for them. Every day you need a certain amount of calories to carry out the body’s basic needs - growing eyelashes, keeping your heart beating and firing your muscles to brush your teeth.
For someone of my age height and weight it is around 1500 calories (you can find out your own ‘‘basal metabolic rate’’ from any number of online calculators including this). So every day you get to eat a certain amount of without putting on weight (for me, 1500). If you eat more, the body stores the excess energy in fat cells. If you eat less energy than your body needs - either because you reduce your intake, increase your energy needs through exercise, or both - you lose weight. Once you build a cumulative calorie deficit of 7,500 calories, you will lose about one kilo of weight. BAM! Once you know this, you can make better decisions about what to eat and how much to exercise you need to do to keep you at the weight you’re happy with. It’s more accounting than economics, but it works.
6. Can economics be applied to love? Have you ever secretly applied economic theories to your own dating life?
I think I probably suffer something akin to Stockholm syndrome when it comes to economists. I’ve been writing about economics for the best part of a decade now, and I’ve sought their advice on everything, from traffic congestion to disability insurance. So I thought, why not hit them up for some advice on love? Turns out they are surprisingly opinionated on the subject, viewing the search for ‘‘the one’’ as a simple ‘‘optimal stopping problem’’. You can read all about it in my Sunday Life piece ‘‘Dateonomics’’.
7. What is the biggest misconception people have about economics?
That it’s boring. At its heart, economics is about how to help humans make utility-maximising decisions. Utility, at the end of the day, means happiness. And what could be more interesting than maximising happiness? I think there are a lot of people out there with a vested interest in making economics look boring or just plain confusing. Businesses make money out of consumers and workers not understanding very much about the economy. Politicians want to make out like Santa - promising to cut taxes and increase spending at the same time. Rare is the voice that is out simply to explain economic concepts to people without obfuscation or pursuing a certain agenda.
8. What is one piece of life-changing advice that economists can give us?
Remember that time and resources are scarce. Every minute, whether you realise it or not, you are making a decision about how to spend your time. Economists urge people to consider their ‘‘opportunity cost’’ - what are you giving up when you chose Path A over Path B. When you choose to spend an hour watching television, that’s an hour that you can’t spend outside in the sun, or visiting relatives or reading a book. You may get more enjoyment out of watching TV than any of those activities. Or you may just be watching TV out of habit. Either way, you’ll be better off if you’re aware of the choice that you are making at every point in time. And it is a choice. So make it a good one.
9. Finally, do people still ask you about Ross Gittins and the interest rates at parties?
All the time.
Jessica’s first book, Zombies, bananas and why there are no economists in heaven, is published by Allen & Unwin.