Late  Bloomer

Author:Chris Wellisz

Late Bloomer Finance & Development, December 2017, Vol. 54, No. 4

Chris Wellisz profiles David Autor, the MIT economist who has done pathbreaking work on the effects of imports on the US labor market

D rop by David Autor’s office at lunchtime and you’ll find the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economics professor munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that he brings from home every day. Not only does Autor like peanut butter and jelly, it saves him the time it takes to make the trip downstairs to the cafeteria.

“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.

Take Autor’s studies of the impact of imports from China on US factory workers. In his days as a graduate student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in the late 1990s, economists were debating the reasons for the decline in US manufacturing jobs and concluded that it was a long-term trend and that automation was the main culprit. To the extent that workers were displaced by competition from imports, they could find other jobs relatively easily in the large and flexible US labor market.

“Just as the debate was ending, the facts were changing,” Autor says...

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