My first week of graduate school found me in a microeconomics class with a teacher reviewing the assumptions behind what is commonly called the “Adam Smith hypothesis”. Referring to the founder of the discipline of economics, it is a hypothesis that free markets work well, and that work so well that under them no one can be made better off without someone else being made worse off. This can actually be proven using calculus, using a proof that makes us math geeks smile, but it is dependent on several assumptions that may or may not be true in all situations. These assumptions include the assumption that people have the necessary information to make good decisions and that people are strictly self-interested. It was this last assumption that struck me, sitting in that graduate class, as wrong, since I had two friends who at that moment were serving in volunteer organizations abroad. I asked the teacher about how he reconciled the assumption of self-interest with the fact that some people go to great lengths to be altruistic, and received an adequate answer.
I was not completely convinced, however, and found myself coming back to the assumption of no altruism over and over in my graduate studies. In the end, I wrote my dissertation on a topic relating to altruism, and have continued to study it ever since. I think that any parent knows well that the assumption of self-interest is not always valid, unless expanded to include an interest in the well-being of our children. No matter how much we want to stay in a warm bed, we pull ourselves out to answer the cries of a sick child. And it is such interest that inspires us to spend money on things like tuition and clothes for our children in ways that are not strictly in our own self-interest.
I have spent the research portion of my academic career studying volunteerism and the nonprofit sector, and along the way have met other people, including some economists, who are studying the same thing. I originally met them through the fellowship that funded my dissertation, and later through a professional organization known as “ARNOVA”, which stands for “Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action.” I love to attend their conferences, which are all the more exciting because they are interdisciplinary, with economists talking to psychologists, talking to sociologists and social workers. However, since taking our daughter home, I have not traveled to attend one, and have therefore communicated with the other scholars from the group only by e-mail.
I owe a great debt to the senior scholars in that group, for several reasons. They have read my work and offered suggestions over the years, suggesting articles to cite and journals to submit to. Many of the senior scholars were on the committee that chose me for a dissertation fellowship twenty years ago, thereby speeding up my entrance into full time employment just fast enough to allow me to obtain a job with health insurance right when I discovered I was deathly ill. They encouraged me to accept a job in Cleveland, with its rich heritage of philanthropy, but did not realize that they were also steering me toward a town that housed some of the world’s best hospitals housing the world’s best neurosurgeons. It is not too much to say that I am alive and well today because of their mentoring years ago.
This year the conference came to me, and is being held in downtown Cleveland, near my home. I am going for the first time in many years, and there are several things that are different this time. I am bringing my co-author, a former colleague who refused to allow me to forget that, while I reside in a math department, I am an economist at heart. In my wallet are new business cards with my title of professor and chair, as well as a beautiful picture of my daughter. And I am counting on the name tags to help people recognize me, because in the years since I saw many of these people, I have gained some wrinkles and dark circles under my eyes. I see these as badges of honor from my efforts to parent my daughter, and I celebrate them. Because, as I look in the mirror at the person I have become, I realize that I am doing something that was almost out of reach only a short time ago; I am getting to grown old.