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Michael Weiss

Michael D. Weiss

BA Mathematics
Brandeis University

PhD Mathematics
Brown University

MA Economics
University of Maryland

Agricultural Economist
US Department of Agriculture

I am a staff member at the Economic Research Service (ERS), an agency of the US Department of Agriculture devoted to economic analysis. ERS consists of approximately 600 people, mostly agricultural economists and support staff. We occupy a building in downtown Washington, DC.

A word about titles - mine is Agricultural Economist, and I currently work in the Environmental Indicators and Resource Accounting Branch of the Natural Resources and Environment Division. I think there's a lesson in that. When seeking a mathematical position, don't be put off the trail by titles of jobs or work units that may not seem mathematical. Mathematicians can pop up, and do mathematical work, all over the place.

What attracted me to ERS was a strong (if untutored) belief that economics would be an excellent "real world" field within which to apply the insights of mathematics. I soon confirmed that my impression was correct.

Modern economics, especially the body of modern economic theory that forms the basis for applied work, uses a great deal of mathematics. For example, microeconomics (the theory describing the economic behavior of individual consumers and firms) now uses advanced mathematics to relate a firm's cost to its production capabilities. At the other extreme, macroeconomics (the theory describing the aggregate behavior of an economy) draws on such mathematical tools as control theory (to study the best way to control the movement of an economy in a given direction). Moreover, econometrics makes extensive use of statistics to test formal economic theories against real-world data.

Not only is there a good deal of mathematics in general economics; the economics of agriculture gives rise to its own types of mathematical problems. Most notably, agriculture is inescapably tied to the notion of risk (in effect, probability). For, while warmth and moisture are essential inputs to the production of agricultural crops, a farmer can neither control nor accurately predict how the weather will turn out. Thus, the crop yield - and as a result, the farmer's income - can be known beforehand only in terms of various possibilities. Moreover, the probabilities associated with various crop yield levels (and consequently with various income levels) may be affected by such choices as which crop is planted or how much fertilizer is applied. Thus, to understand how farmers make such choices - in effect, to understand their economic behavior - one needs to know how a "rational" individual forms preferences among the different ways of associating probabilities with various income levels. Much of my own research has centered on clarifying this topic - the economic theory of individual choice under uncertainty. The mathematics required to treat this subject rigorously has been both a surprise and a delight to me.

 

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