The secret lives of our profs

Naveed Islam

Professor Merton Finkler took his first course in undergraduate-level economics in 1966 when America was facing heavy inflationary pressures and staggering unemployment rates. The macroeconomic issues raised by the problems of the late ’60s and early ’70s piqued his interest.
“It wasn’t until the public policy questions got interesting, especially the macro questions. That got my attention,” said Finkler. His deeper study into the field of economics led him to a master’s degree, a doctorate and a teaching career at Lawrence that has spanned 30 years.
When he was 2 years old, Finkler’s parents escaped the below-zero winters of Milwaukee to sunny Southern California, where he grew up “not far from Los Angeles.”
He attended the University of California in San Diego three years after the new campus had just opened. “The late ’60s were very volatile times on college campuses,” recalled Finkler. “UC-San Diego attracted lots of well-known folks who came there to retire. They were fun to listen to and learn from.”
After graduating from UCSD, Finkler earned his master’s from the London School of Economics, focusing on mathematical economics and econometrics.
“I had a terrific time,” said Finkler, “because I was the only American there and the folks in my program came from all over. I thought that was just wonderful because I made good friends from lots of different places.”
Finkler has a variety of interests in his field, but the two he spends the most time with are medical care and economic growth.
Said Finkler, “I’ve done a lot of work on the economics in medical care and trying to understand what’s cost effective and what’s not. From a policy perspective, [I look at] how to evaluate the various alternatives for reform that have been proposed.”
His attention to economic growth stems from an interest in China and economic growth in an urban setting.
“It’s an interest I’ve had for a long time,” he said, “but it got pushed to the background until about six or seven years ago when the opportunities to go to China started coming up.”
He and Mark Frazier of Lawrence’s government department took 12 other students to study the economic and political climate of China.
Currently, Professor Finkler is researching the economic effects of dam removal on rivers and how they affect the communities nearby.
“We’ve got tons of dams that were built for another time and another era but are just largely sitting there as safety hazards,” said Finkler. “They clog up and change the flows of the rivers in a big way.”
He is also teaching a course with Assistant Professor of Geology Andrew Knudsen called “Water Wars,” which focuses on rivers and lakes in China and the U.S. and tries to understand the driving forces that are changing those rivers.
Next term he’s teaching an upper-level course, in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. Said Finkler, “This course is on entrepreneurship and financial markets, and the idea is to try to understand the array of new options that we have in the financial markets. How do we make sense of them, what are the risks, what are the benefits and how do we use these things?”
In his free time Finkler enjoys bicycling, cross-country skiing and playing tennis. Two of his favorite books are Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded” and Raghuram Rajan’s “Saving Capitalism from the Capitalist.”
He advises prospective economics majors to “take a course early, see if you like it. You have to like the way economists think about things and you have to be pretty quantitatively oriented to make it worthwhile. It’s a way of thinking that we like to expose all students to.