Walking the walk

Fittingly, Umbeck’s choice of economics as a field of study and his later decision join the faculty at Purdue can also be understood through incentives.

After growing up in Galesburg, Illinois, a small farming community where his father served as president of Knox College, Umbeck traveled to the big city and a more urban liberal arts setting, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from Occidental College in Los Angeles.

But only after changing his major five times.

“When I finally took an economics class, I knew I had found my calling because it intuitively made sense to me,” Umbeck says. “It fit perfectly with how I thought.”

John Umbeck

Krannert economics professor John Umbeck joined the Purdue faculty in 1975. (Photo by Mark Simons)

He remained on the West Coast for graduate school, completing his master’s and doctoral degrees in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Washington, respectively, before eventually joining the faculty of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

When George Horwich, then chair of Purdue’s economics department, first offered him a faculty position, Umbeck declined because he and his wife had just bought a home and were planning to start a family.

A short time later, however, Umbeck gave an economics seminar at the University of Chicago, which also offered him a faculty position. He stopped in West Lafayette on the drive back to Virginia at the request of Horwich.

The late economics professor had asked Umbeck to conduct a similar seminar for Krannert students. In truth, Horwich had other motivations and made a second offer before Umbeck could leave town. This time –– after considering the incentives –– he accepted.

“By then, my wife and I were expecting our first child,” Umbeck says. “We didn’t want to raise a family in a big city like Chicago, but West Lafayette had the same small-town atmosphere I’d grown up with in Illinois.”

Though he initially planned to stay for only a year, Umbeck remains a member of the Purdue community nearly four decades later. “My daughter and son both live here, and now I have grandchildren,” he says. “I’ve really grown to love the Midwest.”

His colleagues in Krannert have provided additional incentives to stay, among them his longtime collaborator and friend, Jack Barron, who joined the faculty the same year as Umbeck and now serves as Loeb Professor of Economics and head of the department.

“At the time, Jack was sort of a blend between what I was doing with economics and what others were doing with economics,” Umbeck says. “He helped me fit into the department, and we’ve done a lot of research together over the years.”

Umbeck’s unique approach to the so-called “dismal science” –– part microeconomics and part macroeconomics –– was relatively uncommon when he began his career. Today, thanks to books like Levitt’s Freakonomics and the work of other young economists of his ilk, including Krannert’s Tim Cason and David Hummels, such specialized perspectives are more mainstream.

“We look at data and are interested in how the world actually operates,” Umbeck says. “In our view, economics is about people and their behavior, not about things. And there aren’t many things more fun than watching people.”

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