Two schools of thought

by Catalina Myers  |   

Economics and history major Joseph Longuevan. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

It was Joe Longuevan's senior year of high school when his father announced that the family was packing up their belongings, leaving their Colorado life and heading northbound to Anchorage, Alaska. 

This was not in Longuevan's short- or long-term plan.

Moving 3,000-plus miles to the northernmost state in the U.S., where he had no friends or anything remotely familiar to him, was not how he expected to finish his senior year. As soon as he graduated, it was back to Colorado. 

"My original plan was to move straight back to Colorado because I didn't know anyone in Alaska and I had no interest in staying at the time," said Longuevan.

But when he qualified for a scholarship that would make attending UAA more affordable, he decided to stay. "I decided to stay for a bit and then transfer back to Colorado."

It was his high school economics class - a graduation requirement for all Alaska high school students - that coaxed him into staying in Alaska and attending UAA. 

"I came here expecting to leave fairly soon, but found out UAA has a killer economics program," said Longuevan. UAA has one of the top economic labs in the world. "I fell in love with the economics department and all of the faculty who have been great mentors to me."

And now, nearly five years later, he's glad he took a chance on a state and a university that opened up a world of opportunities for studying, research and life experiences.

Incentives, an economist's worldview

In high school, Longuevan was originally on the path to political science. He enjoyed trying to understand how people interacted with each other and what motivated them to certain actions, but there was always a piece that he felt was missing. 

"I appreciate that economics has a lot more to do with a logical solution to things and is more based on facts than politics," said Longuevan. "I like the structure of economics and the way that economists view the world."

Through his UAA courses, he's learned about that economic worldview through economic theory, research and experiments, and said that, essentially, economists view the world through incentives. Economists analyze those incentives and predict people's behavior based on the incentives presented to them at the time. That can be anything as simple as an individual participating in a retail promotion at a local grocery store, to how people will vote and the outcome of a presidential election.

Longuevan said as a freshman he was able to dive fairly quickly into his major classes, which was intimidating at first. His classes were a lot more math heavy than he had anticipated, but mastering those skills gave him the confidence to continue to his more advanced coursework, which led him to the part of his economics study that has stood out the most: experimental economics.

Experimental economics?

"A lot of people, especially me, when I first went into the class, I had no idea what to expect when I heard 'experimental economics,'" said Longuevan of his first encounter with the class. "Are we throwing economics at the wall to see if it sticks? I didn't realize we were going to be in a scientific lab, it was going to be structured and we were going to be running experiments related to the field of economics."

UAA's experimental economics lab allows professors and students a broad range of study. In the group lab courses, he said the experiments are more focused on how groups behave. He described a natural resource game where students simulated being lumberjacks harvesting wood, a scarce natural resource. In the game, the incentive was to accumulate as much wood as possible.

"There's a problem with sustainability in this game," Longuevan said. "If everyone goes out and chops down trees, there's no more wood and then we're all out of a job. So we had to communicate as a group to determine how much we were all going to harvest."

In the end, he and his classmates were able to create a sustainable harvest where everyone shared in the wealth of their forest industry scenario. In this particular experiment, the incentive was fairly obvious, but Longuevan said in others, he and his classmates didn't always necessarily know what they were getting into and had to work harder to find the natural outcome of the experiment.

"There's this experiment, the Double Auction, where one group in class is designed to be a seller and the other half a buyer," Longuevan said. The experiment was originally created by Vernon Smith, Nobel Prize winner in economics, and for whom UAA's experimental economics lab is named. The experiment got a modern update by former UAA economics professor Kyle Hampton, who was mentored by Smith. In Hampton's updated experiment, students use smartphones, and only the buyer or seller know the value of their particular item, and either want to buy or sell their item for more or less of its actual worth. "Our professor had a livestream of each interaction and we were able to watch a livestream of each sell reaching equilibrium, which is what economic theory predicts and what Vernon is most known for."

Longuevan said it was one of the cooler experiments he got to experience because he and his classmates were able to see economic theory play out exactly as their textbook said it would, in real-time, right before their eyes. 

"It's nerdy stuff, but cool," said Longuevan with a grin. 

The second major

Although economics takes up a lot of Longuevan's time, his second major, history, is one that is equally as fascinating and one that he's enjoyed learning about. Although, he's realized that for his economic graduate pursuits, he will have to get caught up on the math side of the subject.

When Longuevan first applied to UAA, a counselor suggested that he double major. He saw that UAA had a history major option, and thought, "perfect!"

"What I didn't know at the time, what they meant was that I should do more math," said Longuevan, laughing. "History is a lot of writing, personal growth, and I'm really enjoying learning about how the world came to be."

Longuevan said he's focused his history studies on U.S. political history from about 1860 to the present, and although it may not be completely obvious, his history major has come in handy in the real world and his economics study.

"It's afforded me the opportunity to really hone my writing skills, especially when discussing public policy and policy effects," said Longuevan. "It's also allowed me to look at economic thought through time in the U.S., and in some cases, Europe, which has aided me in my economics classes in random ways, like being able to detail a specific tax when writing a paper."

The crossover

For Longuevan, double majoring in economics and history has allowed him to crossover the two disciplines and has strengthened his studies in each, by being able to see, as he describes, "two schools of thought" for viewing the world. 

At UAA, he's been afforded opportunities he thinks he wouldn't have achieved in a school in the Lower 48, from meeting his economics hero Vernon Smith, to studying in UAA's experimental economics lab, to learning from some of the top economists in the field that happen to research and teach at UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).

"I am grateful for the ability to study under these researchers; they're incredibly talented in a very interesting field and time," said Longuevan. "They're also all very kind and very understanding mentors. They are great with students and have brilliant ideas and they're willing to discuss them us."

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement 

Creative Commons License "Two schools of thought" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.