Newsletter No. 434

10 No. 434, 19.3.2014 Why did you switch to economics in graduate school after obtaining a first degree in engineering? Motivated by poverty, most people of my generation studied extremely hard when China resumed its college entrance examination system. I did fine in my engineering major for the first degree, but I did not find it very interesting. By contrast, I was very sensitive to ever-changing social phenomena. So upon graduation I enrolled in an MBA programme, and eventually went to Canada for economic studies with help from a famous economist Prof. Gregory C. Chow . Why, among all the fields of economics, are you attracted to the analysis of social issues such as crime, fertility, marriage, education, gender bias and old-age support? I was inspired by a monograph on family economics by Gary Becker who was awarded a Nobel Prize for analysing social issues from an economic approach. It made me realize how powerful economics can be in explaining human behaviour. It is a general misunderstanding that economics only teaches students to make money. Economics is the study of how people make decisions on how best to satisfy their needs with limited resources. In fact, consciously or unconsciously, we all use economics in everyday decision-making even without knowing any economic theory. How does economics explain human behaviour? Take the decision to have children as an example. In developing countries, raising children is an insurance against some of the perils of old age. But in countries with developed capital markets, potential filial support is not the main reason for making the decision. In the latter case, the economic analysis views having a child as a ‘durable consumption’; it assumes and discovers that child-rearing increases parental happiness. We certainly do not deny the importance of social and psychological factors, and so forth, or that children could be the product of love. We just do away with rhetoric and use as much as mathematical language or graphics to distil an issue down to its economic essence. Tell us something about your recent election as a Fellow of the Econometric Society. Established in 1930, the Econometric Society is the most prestigious international society for the advancement 你本念工程,为何攻读硕士学位时转修经济? 因为贫穷,使得我这批人在高考恢复后特别勤奋。我在大 学读工科时成绩不错,但发现自己对工程兴趣并不特别 大,反而对环境和社会现象的变化很敏感。于是先读工商 管理硕士,继而因缘际会在著名经济学家 邹至庄 教授帮助 下,转到加拿大读经济。 为何钟情犯罪、生育、婚姻、教育、性别偏见及养老等 社会议题涉及的经济问题? 诺贝尔经济学奖得主 加里.贝克尔 一本家庭经济学的著作 启发了我,让我意识到经济学在解释人类行为方面惊人的 力量。很多人以为经济学只教学生赚钱,那是个误解。经 济学说的是为达到某个目标,怎样在众多约束之下优化选 择。日常大家不管懂不懂经济学理论,都在无形运用经济 学,只是没有意识到。 能否举个简单例子,说明怎样以经济学解释人的行为? 就说选择要不要孩子的问题吧。在发展中国家,养儿是为 了防老,但在发达社会要保障退休生活有很多方法,那已 经不是主因。经济学把生育小孩视作拥有「耐用消费品」, 假定及推算出在发达社会,孩子会增加父母的幸福指数。 当然这不是说否认社会学、心理学等作用,也不否认孩子 是爱情结晶,经济学只是褪去感性的美丽修辞,分析行为 的经济实质,尽量以数学或图像表达。 最近获计量经济学会推选为院士,请介绍一下背景。 计量经济学会成立于1930年,是世界最富盛誉的经济学 学术组织。我是本年度亚洲区内唯一当选的学者。目前为 止,中国还有三位学者曾获此荣衔,分别在清华、北大和 上海交大。我是第四个,而且是唯一「土生土长」的─我 在加拿大工作了三年半就来了中大,那时还是讲师,一教 二十年。今天这份成就虽是个人努力的结果,但也和中大 的学术环境密不可分。 这次当选对于你的教学或研究有什么意义? 鼓励我调整目标。教授在资历较浅时往往从个人角度出 发,追求多产、多发表文章。院士是一种荣誉和认可,此后 的追求就应提升学术及社会层次。我会集中更多精力于一 些更基础的研究。最近开展的一些项目也围绕贫穷、社会 不平等、留守儿童、社会流动等社会问题。 是什么驱动你在中大一教二十年? 对学术的热情是最大动力。经济学和商业息息相关,外界 有很多诱惑向我们招手,也有其他大学的招揽,但我最后 还是选择留下来。我一直很喜欢中大的研究环境。这里自 然环境也优美,空气清新,令人留恋。 这些年你不时出任政府的政策顾问,可否分享个中 经验? 这方面我有点「爱恨交缠」。在政府服务过数个委员会, 包括前策略发展委员会,也担任过政府部门顾问。他们有 时会采纳我的建议,例如讨论人口政策时放弃用「香港最 优人口数量」这个概念。不过有时也难免气馁,我曾提议 仿效美国普遍做法,对社会项目效益进行科学评估,但他 们至今仍未跟进。 of economic theory and application. Among the newly elected Fellows, I am the only scholar from Asia. There are three Chinese scholars previously elected, and they are now teaching respectively at Tsinghua University, Peking University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. I am the fourth, and the only ‘home-grown’ scholar. I had only worked for three and a half years in Canada before joining CUHK as a lecturer. Twenty years have gone by. I have worked hard for my achievements which owe much to the academic environment of CUHK. What impact would the fellowship have on your teaching and research? It encourages me to aspire to higher goals. Junior professors tend to shape a productive career path by focusing on publication. Having obtained the honour and recognition bestowed by the fellowship, I am at liberty to advance my pursuit in academic and social dimensions. I shall focus more on fundamental research. Recently I have also undertaken some projects on poverty, social inequalities, left-behind children and social mobility. What keeps you teaching at CUHK for 20 years? The motivation comes mainly from the passion for academic pursuits. As economists, we are closer to the business world so there are always some outside opportunities in the industry. I have also been approached by and indeed received offers from other universities, but I chose to stay in the end. I enjoy the excellent research environment at CUHK. The natural beauty and good air quality are also among the reasons I like the University. Over the years you have provided consulting services and advice to governmental agencies. Can you share the experience with us? I have some mixed feelings about that. I have served in some committees in the government, including then the Commission on Strategic Development, or as a consultant for government agencies. Sometimes they took my advice. For example, when discussing population policy, they gave up the concept of an optimal population size in Hong Kong. But there were also times when nothing was done. On one occasion, I suggested to conduct scientific effectiveness evaluation of social projects as commonly practised in the US, but so far they still have not followed up on that. 张俊森教授 • 伟伦经济学讲座教授 • 经济学系系主任 • 计量经济学会院士 Prof. Zhang Junsen • Wei Lun Professor of Economics • Chairman, Department of Economics • Fellow of the Econometric Society