You can trace my earlier jobs here, my next job, which I believe started at age nineteen, involved giving summer talks to high school debaters. The program was called Economics in Argumentation, and it continues today in a much broader form under the name Economic Thinking, led by the excellent Gregory Rehmke, who was program leader back then as well.
The program was looking for someone who had debate experience (I debated for one year, my high school debate partner was the later economist and Fed governor Randall Kroszner), someone who was available, someone willing to fly around the whole country, someone affordable, someone who could relate to the high school students, and someone who knew enough economics. That was me.
So I barnstormed for part of the summer, doing I would guess six to eight events a year? I was paid $500 plus expenses for a weekend, typically to give a few talks on how to apply economics to the year’s debate topic. One topic example was “the economics of arms sales,” and so in advance I had to spend a few months reading up on the topic of that year. Other potential speakers were not so interested in doing that.
For my first talk, which was my very first public talk ever, I was nervous and disorganized, but after that I was fine and just consistently got better. That is when and how I learned to give public presentations. It was also my first time taking flights on a regular basis, and navigating new locations other than the immediate Atlantic seaboard/95 corridor.
Here are a few things I learned and some related memories:
1. I visited Seattle and Houston most frequently. But I also went to Louisville, Grand Rapids, Wichita, a bunch of other Midwest places, and Los Angeles and San Francisco for the first time. I learned what a great country America is, and I began to figure out how to travel. I became acquainted with locales such as eastern Kansas, and would have not otherwise seen them, or realized how much I enjoy seeing them. My knowledge base expanded rapidly.
2. Greg was super-nice to me throughout, and he has ended up being one of the people who helped me out most. The money was useful but most of all the experience. Greg had to put up with a lot of me, and he enjoyed mocking me (gently) for thinking (at first) that all restaurants around the United States were going to be serving chocolate ice cream. Greg had formerly been a student of Paul Heyne’s at the University of Washington, so he had broadly Austrian and market-oriented views, and I fit into his programmatic vision very well. (In fact most of what I was teaching I had learned from Heyne’s own book, which I read when I was fourteen.) Plus going around with Greg was a lot of fun. He is also a basketball fan, explained to me articulately exactly why Bill Walton was such a great player albeit briefly, and he taught me things like “if you are going to fly around the country, you need to have a credit card.”
3. High school debate coaches are in general a great and very dedicated group of educators. The debate world back then was a kind of privatized appendage to the public school system, and it was a good refuge for people who really wanted to learn things. They were also good audiences to practice upon, because a) they are used to considering all sides of an argument, and b) they judge presentations as such and apply fairly high but not obnoxious standards. They also expect you to get to the point very quickly.
4. Giving the talks forced me to figure out what I thought economics really was all about. Incentives and opportunity cost were the two ideas I pushed the hardest. I tried to show the audience, through the application of concrete examples and arguments to the topic area, that those ideas were useful for formulating and responding to debate arguments. I also encouraged them to think about secondary consequences in a more rigorous and systematic fashion, rather than just tacking them onto arguments for the sake of debate.
5. Here is a seven-minute excerpt from one of my talks. I was younger then.
6. I had the chance to meet Paul Heyne when we visited Seattle, and in general met lots of interesting people along the way.
6b. I have a memory of driving around with Greg, finding a delicious Basque restaurant in Nevada. But how did we end up in Nevada?
7. A number of other speakers for the program were graduate students in economics, and with debate backgrounds, yet I noticed immediately that they did not really think like economists. They knew more neoclassical economics than I did, but somehow they were lifeless in their approaches and were not able to integrate the economic way of thinking with debate topics. Some remain in the profession to this day. It was important for me to learn just how much of the educated world fit into this category, one way or another.
8. Most of all this job required the energy to start, finish, and maintain each talk in a way that would command the attention of bright high school students. They also respected preparation, so you had to come in knowing more than they did about the topic, but at the same time make the economics the primary focus. Ultimately “show up and perform” is one of the job styles I am most comfortable with.
9. I felt I was getting a good deal overall, and wasn’t looking to demand a higher wage. At the margin, I was more likely to ask for more events on the West Coast and in other good places.
10. Maybe I did this for three summers in a row? (One of my successor speakers was Air Genius Gary Leff.) Graduate school and then moving to Germany pulled my attention toward other endeavors. But it was a job I loved, and a job that in modified form I still have to this day.