John Umbeck

Economics professor John Umbeck has been honored by students at every level, from undergraduate to executive, including five consecutive Salgo Noren awards (2005 to 2009) from MBA students for outstanding graduate teaching. (Photo by Mark Simons)

Umbeckonomics

Krannert prof brings the 'dismal science' to life

John Umbeck gets many questions from his students, especially those who come from disciplines outside of business. In recent years, however, one of the most recurring queries is if he has read Freakonomics.

The answer, of course, is yes. In fact, he’s a fan and colleague-in-spirit of the book’s coauthor, University of Chicago professor Steven Levitt, who keynoted Krannert’s 2010 Leadership Speakers Series.

And why wouldn’t he be? The bestseller’s central premise –– that economic incentives drive people’s behavior –– has long been a staple of Umbeck’s research and teaching.

Indeed, the 2005 book’s subtitle, “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” could just as well describe the Krannert professor, whose papers, essays and lectures address such unconventional topics as property rights and self-reliance during the California Gold Rush, crime, disability-prone air traffic controllers, drunk-driving laws, and the economics of keeping prisoners of war in Southeast Asia.

Even anonymous reviews of Umbeck’s classes posted on RateMyProfessor.com use many of the same glowing adjectives contained in testimonials for Levitt’s likeminded publication: “fascinating … unique … eye-opening.”

One student calls Umbeck, who has taught economics at Purdue since 1975, “a master of his field.” Another describes a lecture hall packed with 150 attentive students taking a course with no attendance requirement. “He [Umbeck] talks very softly, yet the class is so quiet you can hear him all the way at the back,” observes the student.

Umbeck, who has earned dozens of teaching awards and research distinctions over his career, is more humble about his work.

“If you can’t make economics interesting, what can you make interesting?” he asks. “To me, economics is the study of people. It’s the same thing we do when we go to the movies or turn on a television. We observe people in a particular context or situation and try to understand why they behave the way they do.”

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