Assistant Professor Jakina Debnam

Why did you become an economist?

I was interested in health and how there exist vaccines for a lot of diseases that people still die from, and it struck me that it wasn’t a scientific problem—it was an economic problem, of distributing the solution and making sure that people got it. I found that economics was underlying a lot of things that I thought were wrong in the world.

What drew you to behavioral economics?

I was interested in interrogating from the question: What does it mean to have a good life? Economics is a powerful tool, and I think that among social sciences it gets the most credence in policy conversations, rightly or wrongly. If economists are going to have this voice, then we need to be careful about the way we’re trying to intervene in society.

What’s one way that economists intervene using our feelings?

The 2008 book Nudge [by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein] is about making low-cost interventions in people’s lives in ways that feel unobtrusive. Take mandatory calorie postings on menus in New York City. The traditional approach would be to tax high-fat, high-sugar foods. But instead, now we want to nudge people—to gently remind them that something isn’t healthy. Implicit in this is: you’re making a welfare judgment of what makes somebody “better off.”

Where do you want to take your students?

I want them to understand how behavioral economics fits with neoclassical economics. Students are excited about the idea of being “nudgers,” about intervening in people’s choices and helping them to be better off.
I want them to be careful about the assumptions that they’re making, because I do think it’s easy to get off the tracks.

Photo Credit: Maria Stenzel