Nobel Committee Reminds Me Why I’m Not an Economist

The Nobel Prizes are among the most prestigious (highly respected or honored) awards given to people who have accomplished something great in their field (area of work or study). Yesterday the Nobel Committee awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Economics to two American professors, Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims.  Both are 68 years old, both studied at Harvard University, and both helped me decide not to study economics thirty years ago.

In 1981, I was a freshman (first-year college student) at the University of Minnesota.  My declared (official or stated) major (main area of study) was economics.  I had read several books on economics in high school, and had hoped to study at the University of Chicago, famous for its economics department. But I didn’t have enough money to attend (study) there, so I went to what everyone in Minnesota simply calls “the U” (the University of Minnesota).  The U also had a very good economics department, headed by (led by) one of the chief economists for President John F. Kennedy (who is the topic of this week’s English Cafe), Walter Heller. But there were also a pair of young professors in the department who had some new ideas about economics, and especially the role (function; use) of statistics (mathematical approach to studying information or data) in studying economic behavior (the way people act).  Their names were Sargent and Sims.

Sims in particular wrote a famous paper (scientific article) the year before I arrived at the U on something called “vector autoregression,” an advanced statistical tool he thought would help economists better understand the way people reacted to economic policy in the “real world.” (Don’t ask me to explain it, because I can’t!) One of the teaching assistants (graduate students who help the professor grade papers and lead discussions) for my class explained to me that these complex statistical approaches were the future of economics. Well, I didn’t know much about statistics, didn’t really like math very much, and believed that the human behavior that economics is supposed to explain could not be reduced to (simplified to) a few numbers.  So I quickly decided I would change my major (major in something else).  There ended my brief career as an economist.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered I liked statistical analysis, and began using it in my own research.  By then, however, I was already in the area of second language acquisition, and Professors Sargent and Sims had left the U for other places (Sargent is currently at New York University and Sims at Harvard).  Now they have both won a Nobel Prize for their work.  I congratulate them on their achievement, and thank them for changing my mind about studying economics.  If they had not done so, I wouldn’t be working here at ESL Podcast, which I love more than any job I’ve ever had.


Photo credit: Nobel Prize Medal, Wikipedia PD

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29 Responses to Nobel Committee Reminds Me Why I’m Not an Economist

  1. Sanaz says:

    So we owe these two scientists so much since we have you here 🙂


  2. emiliano says:

    From the bottom of my heart and feeling
    I have to say:
    Thank You Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims
    because you have enough influence over young Jeff
    to change the mind and pleasure of our dear future
    professor Dr. Jeff McQuillan.

    Like him, I am really happy about your
    award but even much more happy about
    Jeff´s final decision.

    Yes, I know He is happy doing just what he likes
    the best, but we are also as happy as him.

    Every moment we know a little more about
    the life of our dear Jeff, and this is really
    quite interesting.

    What about you Lucy?
    Which was the reason that made you choose
    this teaching career and doing here
    such a good splendid work?.
    It was something similar to Jeff or you have
    your ideas clear from the first moment?
    Being young you were thinking; “I want to be one of the
    best teacher of the World”‘ ?
    Being so or not the real thing is that you are
    just it, the best we all can dream.

    Well, you know I am very very curious.
    It is like ….”My Way” also.

    Thank you Jeff, thank you Lucy.
    We all love your work.
    Congratulations you get it.

  3. Betty says:

    Thank you very much indeed, Jeff, for this interesting account of your professors and your career.

    I wish I was smart like you when I was sitting in the lecture room listening to the ever so boring lecturers and brave enough to simply quit economics.

    Economics was only one of the six subjects I had to study but it gave me more than 16.67% headache. I was never good at economics but unfortunately I had to study it because it was always included as a minor part of my courses.

    It must be funny to hear from the news about people you knew previously achieved national or worldwide recognitions. It must have brought back a lot of memories, good or bad, sweet or bitter.

    I agree with you, Jeff, you have the best job in this world, we are lucky to have you.

    Thanks again.

  4. Meggie Hoo says:

    I think I should congratulate you.
    Getting a job that you love mostly in you life is much better than winning a Nobel Prize.

  5. Walt says:

    Those were great words, Jeff. I mean you saying that you love your job. Loving what one does leads to happiness (I believe).
    Thank you for your spectacular job.

  6. Betty says:

    BTW, I think the reason why I was not good at economics is because I was confused by the “American” and “British English” pronunciation differences for the word “economics”.

    Chinese words have “Cantonese” and “Putonghua” pronunciation differences; English words have “American” and “British English” pronunciation differences. The only two languages that I know both have pronunciation differences to confuse me.

    Are there pronunciation differences for other languages like Spanish, Arabic etc?

  7. Ethan says:


    I’m sure either you majored economics or second language acquisition, you would be working as a podcaster anyway. Because that’s just what you are.
    You’re simply the best!


  8. Øyvor says:

    Hi Jeff!
    Well, they made a very good decision, these men! I got the best English podcaster!!!
    HURRAH for the 3 winners!=)

  9. John says:

    I absolutely agree with Maggie and Walt.

    The quality of your podcasts, the scripts and the way how you explain things reflect that you and Lucy love your jobs. Otherwise I guess, you would have already stopped doing this.
    Looking at the whole concept, that is, you provide free podcasts and transcripts tells me, that the both of you really want to help people with improving their English. People and students all over the world, from all layers of society listen to your podcasts and continue doing so – with all due respect, Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims were both honored for their accomplishments and both won about 1 million dollars, still I don’t know who they are and I can’t feel the impact of their work (Hopefully it has nothing to do with what the world’s economy is going through right now).
    Money can buy you a car, it can buy you a house, but it can’t buy you real love.

    Dear Jeff, you haven’t won a Nobel Prize (yet :D), but you and Lucy already have won the hearts and minds of so many people. To me, you both are heroes, who try to make this world a better place
    by teaching English. I love the two of you 😀

  10. sara says:

    Dear Jeff.if you were an economics expert , you would be one of the greatest one on teaching economics in an easy and interesting way.teaching needs a talent and I believe that you do have it totally.

  11. Peter says:

    Quite a story you got there ,Jeff
    I Belive you are next in line to win the Noble price.
    The teaching metod you set forth is a break through.
    I speak from experience,the best approach ever.
    Ur novel aproach Sufficiently covers every nook and cranny.
    You are an accomplished man in the field.
    Your linguistic technique is revolutionary. it is not a groundless, over-night idea. It is a logical,carefully designed fine print system backed up with Jeff’s expertise ,experience , precision ,and finess.
    You are noble-prize worthy:)

    Do u have the profossers phone numbers? I m gonna call them personally ,and thank them for swaying you into changing your major. If it wasn’t for them ,I would still be burried disoriented and confused among a huge pile of English text books.

    Indeed ,you have it all man
    Eslpod is a cerebral text book -that is,the most comprehensive linguistic text book has been put together ever!-

  12. Tania says:

    Hi! Very difficult and boring to study the statistics: figures, indexes, interpretation of data, diagrams – but useful in many, many fields of activity.
    Only the data to be real.
    Regarding the social statistics… someone has an income of $4000 per month, another has $2000 and other $1000.
    Everybody is happy. The average income is $2300.
    We have a funny example: someone eats 2 chickens and another no one. The average is 1.

  13. Betty says:

    Hi Tania

    I love reading your message about the chicken consumption. One chicken per person is very good, no one is poor, that’s the ‘average’ figure, according to the statistics.

    I still remember my statistics tutor which typed with just one figure on one hand – so two fingers instead of ten fingers. He typed so fast that the whole class laughed so much when we watched him typed.

    I studied statistics, but it only confirmed that statistics was far too difficult for me.

    People who are statistics gurus do command respects.

    All the best wishes to you.

  14. Peter says:

    Speaking of economy ,the crunch will come when we Loose Eslpod for lack of fund.
    Guys ,
    Let’s not let this happen.
    It is not where you skimp

  15. Peter says:

    Do you really read all the comments posted up there.
    I love to do it,but don’t have the time.
    I just skim Profs’ post,and jot down sth here.
    The whole process of reading and writing takes me 2 or 3 minutes tops
    Good for you guys
    I wish I had the luxury!

  16. Ziba says:

    Hi Jeff,

    You remind me my experiment like yours.

    When I was in high school I studied mathematics and physics. It was very difficult to get diploma but I managed to get it with a very good degree. I was tired of studying especially math and physic so I didn’t go to university for several years. When I decided to continue my study again, I changed my field and chose a major that I think it’s why I’m one of your listeners and sometimes I visit my friends here.

    Yes I know what you guess, that’s right I’m now studying English language- Translation.
    Now I’m a freshman and I enjoy learning English.

    I think it is important to know what study or job satisfies you and the goal in your life.

    Reading your topics and my friends’ comments here and writing to you and my friends who are from different countries, is my pleasure (i enjoy it).

    Your team work is great, Jeff. I have tried some method to learn English but your method is in use and practical.

    They should have provided a Nobel Prize for the best method of teaching English and I’m sure that prize was given to your team.

    Please continue your work and be sure that you have already received your Prize, because you have a lot of friends from the entire world.

    Best regards,


  17. Hilario says:

    EMOTIONS&FIGURES:As economist myself I also believe, as Jeff does believe, that the human behavior that economics is supposed to explain can not be reduced to a few numbers. Even more the fundamentals of microeconomics model frames or economic human behaviour are based on idealistic assumptions or work hipotesis. Among the most outstanding ones is the principle of consumer sovereignty, which almost every one with half a brain knows doesn´t actually happen in any way. Same happens with macroeconomics models based, among others in-the-air thesis, on the fake assumption of government sovereignty, both in international fair trade and monetary transactions, which once again are like fairy tales. As far as Mr. Sims contribution to econometric studies is my opinion, in good part worth, especially with the valuable help of today´s mathematical computerisation. In plain words we could say that people when they mistake they mistake in the same way once again and again, we´re men after all. Let´s have a look on housing crash and the pyramidal mortgages robbery. Once again the vectorial autoregresion tries to explain economic behaviour starting from another ideal point that is to treat same, both endogenous variables, not the emotional ones but the ones that are coming from and generated within the system, as being the same as exogenous variables or the ones coming and generated outside the system or economic environ of confident. They say, in brief words, that in infinitesimal terms, statiscal values of economic aggregated behaviour, both individuals and governments, converge themselves into common pattern values along side in a particular economic cycle.

  18. Betty says:

    Hi Peter

    Yes I try to read everyone’s post as much as I can. I think I learn quicker by reading everyone’s messages.

    I know you are very busy and thus do not have time to read all the messages. Don’t worry, we need your messages for us to read, we don’t mind if you do not have time to read ours.

    Every time I read your messages I had to look up the dictionary to find out the meanings of some words. Sometimes the words are not in the dictionary, then I try to guess the word because as you told us before you use your iphone to type your messages and the keyboard was too small. I just have to move the letters to the right or to the left of the keyboard and I will find the correct word.

    Just one question, how do you remember everything you learn in this website? It took me a long time to find some of the expressions I learned here when I needed it last time. I guess I need to work harder like you.

  19. Rasoul says:


    The aforementioned story by Dr. Jeff show us that life go ahead with some sort of chance in our life, but someone such as Ziba has choose her own fate by herself, not by Nobel laureate winners.
    In addition something which more important, to me at least, is finding our ways to be useful for ourselves and our society, of course the society of Dr. Jeff not limited to US and all human beings all around the world could use from their valuable works by Jeff and Luci.

    I do not know why those professors suggested to Jeff that did not continue economics, but I guess when he wanted to get advices from those Professors they found that he did not like mathematics and after that economics which need a lot mathematical and statistical figure to survey the economical phenomena and follow their researches. From my point of way they just feedback the feeling of Jeff to him by seeing that he is not interested in that major.

  20. emiliano says:

    Dear Betty, frequently it seems we do not remember the vocabulary or the grammar rules we study but after some time
    our reading or our learning appears spontaneously.
    Learning a new language it is very difficult but despite we may think the improvement is slow that is not so real.
    The key is do a little every day, read, read, listen, and of course write.
    Good reading as a book is one of the best exercises, but reading other persons writes is also incredible good as
    we may observe some mistakes or another way to express the same idea.
    As you I always read all the notes every one of the friends write on the blog and frequently more than once.
    Lot of them some how teach me very much and what is even better to me is just to know how is the opinion, the
    feelings or the life of our friends who make a good effort to express themselves as best as possible.

    Now the general opinion is an absolute agreement about Jeff´s right decision of being an English teacher.
    Also we all are happy because he, also Lucy, enjoys his job and it is so evident that the podcast are the best
    we may find in the web.

    I have not the privilege of working in a subject I really like, but it was easy, sure, and enough to live in
    a not difficult position.
    I have also a lot of free time doing that work as to give me the chance of spending a significant amount of time
    to be with my wife and daughters.
    It was the best of that kind of job… time to do another important things.
    Sharing my time with the people I love, and of course read, listening to good music, learning English, or
    photography, and so on.

    It is evident we can not have everything, and we have to choose.

    Congratulations Jeff, Lucy, Warren, and ESL team.
    I think your choose was a very good one because your are happy doing the
    work you love and may be for that reason it is so incredible good.

    All my best for all of you.

  21. Betty says:

    Dear Emiliano

    Thank you very much indeed for your good advices.

    You are right, the key to learn a new language is to do a little every day, read, read, listen, and of course write.

    Yes, one has to enjoy his job to do his job well. Jeff and his team enjoy their job here and thus do it well.

    However, I sometimes wonder how our teachers do financially. I mean, since they let people listen to the podcast free, a lot of people may choose to just listen and use whatever is available free to learn from this website.

    I learned free for sometime until one day I decided that: no one can do something free for other people forever, the $10 per month could be important for me, but it is also important for our teachers who are also human and have a family to feed. I decided to become a member and I know that if I have spent money on something I will make real good use of it – learn as much as I can from here.

    Hopefully Jeff and his team earn enough to justify the hard work, and do not have to have too many sidelines. (Thank Lucy for her blog article on TUESDAY – OCTOBER 26, 2010, “My Day Job and My Sideline”)

    Best wishes to you and Cuca

  22. PASCL M.ntunda says:

    i’m so interested with you are simple pronounciation which makes me understand well what you are trying to say

    Really i apreciate you program

    Keep it up to help non Native english speakers like me to be a fluently native speaker.

  23. Andreu says:

    Hello Betsy (and all of you),

    I’m not used to write in this blog. I think I wrote once. I follow the blog. I’ve written in Warren’s blog twice or three times. I didn’t remember exactly how many times right now.
    Let me give you my opinion about your doubts. You don’t have to worry about how remember all the things that you learn. In fact you don’t learn a language through memorizing it. You learn a language acquiring it. This is an important difference because until you acquire a word, a phrasal verb, an idiom a grammar structure you aren’t able to use it in a spontaneous way.
    Read as much as you can, look up only for the key words that allows you to understand what you are reading and don’t worry about the exact meaning of all the words and sentences if you are able to follow the story.
    When you are prepared (maybe you are already) try to use a lexical dictionary instead of a translation one. The lexical dictionary gives you definitions and sometimes it is easy to understand a word reading the definition that the translation. Not all the words can be translate directly to another language because maybe they have a special meaning in English or in a context or are part of an idiom or phrasal verb.
    Listen as much as you can. The only rule is listen things that you can understand more or less the plot of the conversation and that you enjoy it.
    I hope these advices may help you. There are not mine. There are Jeff, Lucy, Warren and other experts’ advices but it is good to remember them and bear them in mind.
    Have a nice day.

  24. Tania says:

    Hi! I am very impressed by the Steve Jobs’death as I admire the great personalities. I have read his biography will be published within 2 weeks.
    I’d like to buy this book.
    I watched on TV his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. He spoke in simple words – I could understand him – but with many messages. You must be born a man of genius and not done in a rich family.
    He said “death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.” Simple to say, but in front of the death…

  25. Tania says:

    Hi! And his last words “Keep hungry! Keep foolish!”…
    As he was a thin person I thought he said to keep us thin, don’t eat much. But, no! The message is : keep hungry of learning, of studying and dream at the foolishest ideas. Don’t worry.
    “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

    “Keep hungry! Keep foolish!”

  26. emiliano says:

    Yes, I am trying to do so Tania from a long time, but also having death in mind every morning when I look
    my image at the mirror, thinking it could be the last day of my life, so it is necessary not to lost this
    splendid day to do what I love to do.
    It could be not easy of understand but that is the way of thinking Steve Job had some how influenced by
    Buddhism ideas.
    To him, to them, only present /this moment/ is real and important.

    Betty, I understand your concern about ESL financial issues, it is necessary to support the site with our
    Premium subscriptions if that possibility is possible.


    Andreu, absolutely right.
    Clear and very good said.
    To me that is the best way too.

    Please, write more frequently we need people like you here.

  27. Lotus says:

    Dear All,

    It is my firstly time to be here. I am so envy all of you have so good write skil.

  28. Betty says:

    Hi Andreu

    Thank you very much indeed for your advices. Although you said the advices were Jeff, Lucy, Warren and other experts’ advices, it is very nice to hear it from a fellow classmate, it shows you care.

    I must try to remember, a language is to be acquired, not to be memorised. You are absolutely right. Once acquired, it stays; those memorised, they can go away.

    Andreu why don’t you write more often? Are you very busy and do not have much time writing? I visited Warren’s website’s blog again after reading your message. I am not very used to Warren’s website yet. Might be I need to be studious like Tania. She follows Warren’s advices and she is so clever, so adorable.

    Best Regards

  29. Tania says:

    Hi! Dear Lotus, we are waiting for you daily. Don’t be worried! We all make mistakes.

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