Bill Cox

Tell us about your work-what do you do? I am an economist. Working in the Library of Congress in Washington, I research questions affecting economic policies on request from members and committees of the Congress . My job is to help Congress make use of information in its library, augmenting it with my own training and experience in interpreting how the world economy works. I have written reports evaluating proposals to reform Social Security , to cut or increase taxes , and to liberalize or restrict trade . I give personal briefings for members of Congress and their staff on such issues and organize seminars for them with outside experts. I have served as assistant chief of the Economics Division of my agency, coordinating the work of other economists in the division, evaluating their performance, and hiring new people to replace those who depart or retire. I participate in discussions to help colleagues define and refine their research projects . Occasionally, I am asked to travel abroad for the U.S. Information Agency to talk about U.S. economic policies to audiences in other countries. Other economists teach in universities, work in state governments, work in large corporations and banks, or contract with such institutions as independent consultants. What skills are needed? Above all, patience to work through the complex and often confusing issues that are often like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that must be fitted together to bring a research report into clear focus. Such projects can take several months to complete. Good writing skills are essential to boil complex explanations down into prose that will be read and understood by people who are trained in other fields (most members of Congress are not economists). Likewise with speaking skills . One also needs training in using statistical methods and evaluating other people's use of them. Also important is familiarity with a wide range of research literature in various areas of economic policy. What was your major? I was an economics major as an undergraduate student, although I could have proceeded to graduate study in economics with a mathematics degree. I had a minor in English and creative writing. Courses in history (including economic history) and political science are very useful in my particular application of economics to politics and public policy . How did you get started in your career? After college, I went to graduate school for a doctorate in economics. I studied international economics , money and banking systems, government finance , industrial organization, and statistics among other subjects. I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on industrial development in post-World War II Austria. My first work experience involved comparing the cost-effectiveness of various approaches to rapid expansion of U.S. military forces in Europe in the event of a Soviet attack. I then worked on the economics of producing a U.S. supersonic airliner comparable to the Concorde and served as an "industrial development officer" with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, Austria, undertaking industrial development missions to third-world countries. I also taught economics at the university level. What experience do you need in this job? Some economists specialize in narrow aspects of the economy, such as consumer behavior or corporate finance and do so using "models" to develop theories about them. Because of the wide variety of subjects I am requested to research and the "real world" to which I must relate them, my approach in conceptually broader and less theoretical. A background of varied experience in many areas of economics--- market analysis , international economics, public finance and so on---permits me to take such a broad view. This experience was obtained by carrying out a variety of projects for a variety of employers, including "think tanks", international organizations, universities, and the federal government. Describe your "typical" workday: My typical workday depends upon the phase of the project I am working on at that point. At the outset of a project I consult with other people who have worked on the subject and gather relevant data, documents and literature. Then I draft an outline of the study to be conducted and consult with colleagues and experts on my approach. The actual drafting of my report may require several months of reading, thinking, writing, re-writing and calling people to discuss analytical approaches and conclusions. This phase of the work is not for people who do not enjoy solitary contemplation . In the meantime, of course, I participate in running the agency by serving on committees, for instance, to choose new computer software or to evaluate applicants for open positions. I may also be called upon to "brief" a congressman's staff on the outlook for the economy, the implications of a recent rise in energy prices, or the cases for or against a tax cut . What is the hardest aspect of your job? One difficulty is in maintaining confidence that a project in the making can be finished successfully. Many times I have doubted I could bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. But I have never failed to do so in the end. Another hard part of my job is to see how difficult it is to enact good public policies . Even a member of Congress is only one voice among 535 members, and we "advisors" compete with many others to influence their thoughts. Passage of laws and implementation of policies are the results of pull and tug among many people and interest groups, most of them very parochial, self-interested and sometimes downright shameless. Only in exceptional circumstances does the long process of deliberation and compromise yield policies that a social scientist would see as "optimal" or even as moving in the right direction, and even then such "victories" are not always permanent. What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? The most rewarding part of the job is the intellectual satisfaction of unraveling complex issues , achieving a degree of understanding, even expertise, and then sharing it with the world in a published report and through briefings, speeches and lectures. A well-formulated presentation is a thing of beauty. What are your suggestions for someone considering this field? A bachelor's degree in economics, math, statistics or political science is essential. The proper choice of post-graduate studies depends on how you wish to apply your knowledge. A person interested in a career in business might be well advised to pursue an M.B.A . which includes economics along with management training . A person wishing to do research of the kind I do needs at least a master's degree in economics (a degree in law and economics offered by some universities is a great combination). Such a person will have much better job prospects with a Ph.D. If you want to teach and do research at the university level, a Ph.D. is essential.