Sonntag, 23. November 2014

Finding the Fun in Economics


Another 2 weeks spent in Innsbruck, and boy did they pass quickly! The start of the Carnival Season (November 11) marked the beginning of our "Economy Season" at MCI, which  felt a little weird since no one expected Economics to be a lot of fun. There were some dark premonitions floating around amongst students who expected this to be one of the tougher subjects so far - and it proved to be true.

To be honest, I was looking forward to the challenge. Even though i never felt the desire to study economics after school, i was ready to tackle the subject again from a new angle - and at a different age. I went to a business school from 1990 to 1995 and had more than just a taste of this stuff, but i wasn't sure how much of that would pop up here again and if i would be on familiar turf or in for something new. 

As can be inferred from the name International Health and Social Management, our study programme puts a lot of emphasis on the grander scheme of things, and this broader understanding is what i often lack when looking at newspapers today. Consequently, when choosing this master programme, i didn't necessarily expect or wish to be taught how to run a hospital - i wanted to get a deeper understanding of how our world and society is functioning out there.

One of the beauties of our programme (and at the same time one of our greatest challenges) is that we all come from different places - not just geographically speaking, but also in terms of our previous education. Some have studied a little economics before, others come from a healthcare background (we have 2 doctors, 2 nurses and 3 physiotherapists, one of them being me). Some have already gained working experience, others just finished their bachelor degrees and have virtually no professional experience to speak of. The challenge for our teachers is therefore to pick us up wherever we are and create a "level playing field".

This was especially true at the beginning of last week, where it fell to the lanky Tyrolean economist Stefan Haigner to teach us the "Fundamentals of Economics" in 4 morning sessions, which should then serve as the foundation for our "Introduction to Health Economics" with Italian economist Francesco Paolucci the following week. Was it coincidence that both economy classes were taught by 2 relatively young, smart & handsome male economists? In any case, you can't blame MCI for lack of trying to make this subject as interesting as possible for our class, which consists of 2/3 female students...



Dr. Haigner's class was, in essence, an introduction to macroeconomics, based on the book by Gregory Mankiw - the decisions and trade-offs that customers face and their pursuit of the highest value for money. Or, as economists call it: maximizing utility within a budget constraint. We talked about supply & demand, perfect substitutes, normal & inferior goods, the elasticity of demand, consumer & producer rent/surplus, and the concept of welfare loss. Many things were familiar, but a lot of it was also new, especially in English terminology. What was also surprising is that we were mostly drawing: utility curves, budget constraints, optimal decision points, etc.



This was also true for the exam, which ended our little introductory course on Friday. We received 5 questions, and had 1 hour to draw the right conclusions (double meaning there). I found it pretty tricky, and had some major blunders on all questions except #1, which asked us to demonstrate the perfect complement/substitute. Luckily Dr. Haigner's grade will only amount to 30% of our overall economics grade... anyway, already somewhat humbled by that exam, i then found out that i also scored pretty low on the IDI (Intercultural Development Index) assessment, which was generated from a survey that we had to fill out a few weeks earlier. Even though it doesn't represent a grade (the IDI is a self-improvement tool and, looking at the website, it seems a source of business more than anything) you can't help feeling a little down & out when you only score 77,95 points on a scale of 145 on the Intercultural Development Continuum... but some more therapeutic leaf-raking on Friday afternoon, a screening of the 1962 Hungarian movie "2 Half Times in Hell" at my dorm in the evening, and a busy day at the IKEA cashout on Saturday quickly took my mind off these first disappointments of my new student life.


All of that was quickly forgotten once we started the next week with our Health Economics course with Dr. Francesco Paolucci. A Bologna native who currently teaches in Perth/WA, Paolucci was also instrumental in setting up the multiple-degree-programme between MCI and other European universities. He is, let me quote here, 

"Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health (ACERH) at the Australian National University (ANU), and Adjunct Lecturer at the Institute of Health Policy and Management (iBMG) at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). He has held academic appointments at the University of Bologna, the Management Centre Innsbruck, the University of Oslo, Complutense University in Madrid, and iBMG. Dr Paolucci recently published "Health Care Financing and Insurance: Options for Design" (Springer, 2011) and authored several articles in academic journals on his research interests, which include health insurance, regulated competition, risk equalisation and risk selection, international comparison of health care systems, cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analysis, taxation & public economics, and competition law and economics. He is a member of the Scientific Committee of the International Health Economics Association."


What this text & photo would never lead you to believe, however, is that Dr. Paolucci is one of the most entertaining lecturers you'll ever encounter and he delivered the by far most rewarding academic lecture we've come to enjoy so far here at MCI. If you ever heard the story of the "Italian Man going to Malta", you know that listening to an Italian communicate in English can be highly entertaining. Mr. Paolucci is no exception, but - having obviously spent a lot of time in English-speaking countries - his English is excellent and his Italian accent & intonation are embellished with more than just a dash of colloquial (American) English. His extrovert and almost flamboyant teaching style kept me on the edge of my seat for 5 days, because not only did you have to keep your wits about you when listening to him, but his trademark Italian self-confidence & unpredictability would also provide many unexpected blink-it-and-you-miss-it laughs! 

When he started, i wasn't so sure; he seemed a little full of himself and when he started introducing himself on Day 1 and our colleague Nancy from Egypt came in a few minutes late, that prompted him to actually interrupt his talk to tell her "You're late!" - followed by an uncomfortable silence in the audience. I didn't know what to make of that, especially coming from an Italian... luckily, it just turned out to be his sense of humour - he'd always be quite frank, but never actually hurt anyone personally (although a few of my female classmates disagreed: one claimed he lacked social competence, another found him to be deprecating towards women, and a third thought he implied we were a little daft because we didn't understand demand elasticities. Me and a (female) colleague from Vorarlberg agreed that he was simply being Italian! I thoroughly enjoy listening to someone who's comfortable with himself and an audience because it makes me feel at ease as well. And as for our Egyptian Nancy, she felt at ease with him too - later that week he would amiably joke about her way of negotiating with him as being like "haggling in a Soukh" :) Anyway, i find that providing a few laughs inbetween is never detrimental to studying...

This tough love aproach also came through in his teaching methods: everyday he would hand out long & complicated scientific papers that we had to read, digest & present just a few hours later, followed by a tricky Q&A session, but when it came to grading our presentations, he was super-nice, constructive, fair & encouraging and gave no group less than 85%. Maybe he was overgrading, but that shouldn't take anything away from the hard work we put in; Ken Arrow's 27-page article "Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care" (a text-laden piece of grounded theory that was published in 1963 and paved the way for Medicare and Medicaid in the U.S.) was one of the most challenging scientific articles i've ever read, and i'm glad we weren't the ones to present it. Other articles i had to read included complex, but interesting subjects such as "Supply-induced Demand in Caesarean Sections" (we did have to present that one, and actually scored 100 Points because of the extremely short preparation time we had; none of the other groups were ready to present it on the same day, we did it within 3 hours thanks to the Power Point finesse of our positively-nerdy Czech colleague Ivan) and "Disease-specific Moral Hazard in Health Care". We were at uni from 9 to 5 every day, our most demanding schedule so far, and as soon as i'd come home and had my dinner, i would sit down and continue to slog through his papers, reading sentences over and over, struggling to grasp their meaning. One time i would even head to the library at 9:30 pm just to finish some research. In the end all the hard work paid off: not for the first time in my student life, but maybe for the first time to that extent, did i realize how much more powerful & effective studying can be when you generate and aquire the knowledge yourself instead of just being on the receiving end. You always hear that this is the way knowledge is supposed to be passed on these days, and i'm glad i could experience it myself first-hand! By Day 5 i felt like i had absorbed so much stuff; many of these technical terms like moral hazard, pareto-efficiency or cross-elasticity felt like they'd been household vocabulary for years, and Mr. Paolucci certainly played a big part in that. I can't wait 'til this guy comes back in the 3rd semester to teach us some more advanced Health Economics! It may even be another valid reason to stay in Innsbruck in the 3rd semester and waive my optional Erasmus semester abroad...

By the way,  on Day 1 he showed us a video that might do the same to you as what this whole lecture did to me: bring the fun into Health Economics!

Watch here, in just under 5 minutes, how 200 countries have developed in the last 200 years, explained in a fascinating way by Hans Rosling, Professor for International Health at Karolinska University in Stockholm!


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