Sometimes, the research can get personal, especially when the evidence supports conclusions that people would rather not make. A 1988 essay that Umbeck and Staten coauthored titled “Let’s face it: There are no more American POWs,” prompted angry rebukes from readers –– even death threats.
Written in response to movies like Rambo, Umbeck and Staten’s essay used economic theory and research to conclude that there were no incentives for countries in Southeast Asia to still be keeping U.S. prisoners 13 years after the end of the Vietnam War.
“As a parent, I understood the reaction on an emotional level,” Umbeck says today. “If it were my son or daughter who was missing, I’d hold on to hope, too. But as an economist, I have to consider the facts.”
After Umbeck took the essay off his vita and put the topic aside for nearly 20 years, his and Staten’s research safely made its way to print again in Rambonomics: The Economics of POWs, a 2008 book honoring his mentor, Stephen Cheung, a Chinese economist with whom he first worked at the University of Washington.
After all, there are still soldiers and civilians –– from America or not –– who are killed in military conflicts around the world and never found. And there are others who simply find no incentive to return home. “It’s an unfortunate reality,” he says.
New world relevance
Today, most of Umbeck’s research takes the form of private, proprietary consulting for companies in the oil and gas industry that want to understand the economics behind a key issue, such as how particular legislation or market changes would affect their operations and bottom line. (See sidebar).
Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t share his work and insights more anecdotally in the classroom. And given the global shifts that continue to rock the economy, what could be more timely, relevant and informative?
“The simplicity of our theories in economics is in some cases lost by the complexity of the world,” Umbeck says. “It’s rare to be able to take a small section of the world, bring it down to its simplest understanding and show people how it works. But my consulting work gives me access to information that others can’t get. It’s a hugely beneficial supplement to teaching.”
According to the data, students agree.
Umbeck, who was inducted into Purdue’s “Great Book of Teachers” in 2008, 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. He also conducts an introductory course for all Krannert doctoral students to prepare them for teaching.
“That’s the gift I’ve been given to take into a classroom,” he says. “If students say, ‘The world doesn’t really operate that way,’ I can show them a segment of the world, take them inside it, and help them understand how it works based on real data and evidence. To me, that’s what brings economics alive.”