Medcalfe Enjoys the Practical Side of Business Economics
If you walk into a local Publix and see a man taking pictures of boxes of Corn Flakes, it’s probably Simon Medcalfe. If he talks in a British accent about cricket, it’s definitely him.
Medcalfe, professor of economics and finance at Augusta University, has lived in Augusta for more than a decade and is known for, among other things, his annual Economic Outlook breakfasts that are peppered with corny jokes and his quirky sense of humor.
Medcalfe was born and raised in Manchester, England, and studied economics and finance at a college in Leicester, England. While in college, he spent a summer working at a camp in New Hampshire, where he met the woman he eventually married.
After a brief career working for a temp agency in Manchester, he took a job teaching economics in the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada.
“They needed someone to teach economics, and I fancied doing that,” he said.
He interviewed for the job on a Thursday and started teaching the following Monday. He stayed there for two years before moving to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in finance at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Initially, he pursued international economics, but when his mentor in that subject was called into the Gulf War in the early 1990s, he concentrated on labor economics instead.
Since his wife’s family has roots in Augusta, he took a job at the local campus for Brenau University. In 2008, he began teaching part-time at Augusta University, and he became a full-time professor in 2009.
Economics is an often-misunderstood field, Medcalfe said. People either equate it with macro-economics — looking at the large picture like the federal budget and tax rates — or they think it’s simply finances, like the stock market.
But Medcalfe deals in micro-economics, which involves more of the practical side of economics and how it works in the business world.
“The economics I like involves firm behavior and individual behavior — industry-level behavior,” he said.
He also enjoys studying the psychology behind how and why businesses and consumers act the way they do.
“I love looking at the psychology behind it and try to figure out why people are doing these stupid things,” he said.
Which is why he takes pictures of cereal boxes. In his example to one of his classes, there were three box sizes — small, medium and large — with the largest costing minimally more than the medium size. In experiments, he found that 90 percent of his students would choose either the small or large box, leading to the question of why a company would bother producing the medium-sized box.
It turns out that without the medium-sized box, people might make a different choice.
“The way it’s positioned gets people to make choices that sometimes seem irrational,” he said.
It is that kind of practical experiment that allows him, and sometimes his students, to help local businesses make simple but effective changes to their business practices.
“I like problem-solving,” he said. “I like getting out in the community, talking to business leaders and hearing their thoughts on the economy and what they’re struggling with. I try not to be this ivory-tower economist who sits here and regurgitates the text book. I can bring that back into the classroom.”
One of his most visible community endeavors is the annual Economic Outlook Breakfast for local business leaders, a task he took over from another professor about eight years ago. During the breakfast, he relates trends of the past several years and the most recent year and things to look for in the coming year. He manages to do it in a way that has audience members chuckling along the way.
“Any lecture or talk can be a bit dry, so it’s good to break up the presentation,” he said. “I try to use jokes that have some tenuous connection to the theme.”
Medcalfe has also become known for creating a local Leading Economic Index (LEI) that is based on the national LEI. He discovered five variables in the index that he can localize to project trends for the area. Three years ago, he also created a local labor market index to present information about the Augusta labor market and how it compares to other areas of Georgia.
What are you passionate about in business?
Encouraging students to dig deeper into the economic problems they find interesting. Getting to understand why people don’t act rationally, why they do things that economists can’t explain. I help students see how behavioral economics can help us understand why people are not doing what we want them to do. If a business has a problem I can work with them, or with a student, and come up with business solutions in the general sense. I’ve come to like game theory. You can apply it to almost anything, especially behavior.
How do economics differ in the United States from Europe?
Politically, Americans still have a more free-market response to problems, and in Europe, it’s more that the government can help out. But economics rarely has a straight answer.
How do you unwind?
For the last 18 months or so, my son and I play cricket at Eisenhower Park, mostly pickup games. I’m not that good of a player, I just go because my son is really into it. And we have a subscription at home to the cricket TV channel. We play tennis as a family. I used to play soccer, but I aged out of that. Now I enjoy running along the canal or the greeneway. I try to run a half-marathon every year. I enjoy going to sporting events. Out of the American sports, baseball is my favorite. I’ve seen the Braves play and I’ve been to Yankee Stadium, but I prefer the GreenJackets. I like being closer to the action.
How do you give back to the community?
Professionally, I do community talks for different groups, like SRP, civic clubs like Rotary, and professional associations. One thing I became involved in recently came from one of the community talks. I was asked to do a case study for the Augusta Training Shop, which helps disabled people weave (decorative) snowflakes. I helped them work out how much it costs to make the snowflakes, and ever since I still enjoy helping out. It’s a charity but not a charity because it provides meaningful work for them, they get paid for it and they’re so happy to be working. If you’ve had a bad day, you go there and those people are just so happy to work, so happy to see you. They cheer you up.
What does the future hold for you?
I like working here. I enjoy teaching, the flexibility and the research end of it. There’s a lot of freedom to explore what interests you or challenges you. Augusta University is a good place to work, and we’re poised for growth and expansion that goes along with growth in Augusta. It’s going to be good for the next five or 10 years. I have kids in middle school and high school and I want to get them through the school system before I think about doing anything completely different.