Yale People: Economist Costas Arkolakis prizes cross-disciplinary approach

In the course of his research, Yale economist Costas Arkolakis often utilizes tools and methods from mathematics and other scientific disciplines, such as physics and computer science.

Costas Arkolakis

To that end, working at a university that is strong across disciplines provides an advantage, said Arkolakis, the Henry Kohn Associate Professor of Economics. 

“I can go to seminars in different fields and talk to people from different departments,” said Arkolakis, whose research focuses on spatial economics — the study of how space and frictions of movement affect economic activity and welfare.  “I can take courses in engineering or a course in finance at the School of Management, which keeps me on my toes.”

This cross-disciplinary approach has proven fruitful: Arkolakis recently received the 2017 Bodossaki Foundation Distinguished Young Scientists Award for social-economic sciences — awarded annually to scholars of Greek nationality or descent who are younger than 45.

“I grew up admiring Greek scholars who won the Bodossaki Prize, so this is very meaningful to me,” he said. “I have been inspired in my work not only by the social science recipients, but also by winners in engineering and computer science who have done widely recognized work.”

He is the fourth current member of Yale’s Department of Economics to receive the honor, joining his colleagues John Geanakoplos, Costas Meghir, and Pinelopi K. Goldberg.

“It seems like Yale has become an attractive place for Greek economists,” Arkolakis quipped, adding that his three colleagues have been “a constant inspiration” since he began following their work as a student.

“Our department surely must have the single largest number of Bodossaki Prize winners across all fields and universities,” said Dirk Bergemann, the Douglass & Marion Campbell Professor of Economics and Computer Science, and chair of Yale’s Department of Economics. “It is a wonderful honor for Costas to be selected for the Bodossaki Prize, and to join his distinguished colleagues from Yale who have previously received the prize.”

Arkolakis, who joined the faculty in July 2007, said he enjoys the opportunities modern economics provides to bring a diverse range of tools to bear on any number of questions concerning human behavior.

“We utilize tools from all sciences, directed to answering questions that escape the boundaries of purely economic decisions but govern all the aspects of everyday human life,” he said. “It is an exciting time for the science to have so many tools available, particularly in a vibrant academic environment like Yale’s.”

His research in spatial economics can require employing techniques and algorithms from computing or adapting models from mathematics and physics.

“The same way that physics is interested in the interactions of particles in space, we are interested in the interactions of people in space,” he said.

He currently is working on several projects that involve building massive datasets, composed of historical and contemporary data, to understand how reductions in “spatial frictions,” such as lower trade costs or enhanced transportation infrastructure, affect the growth of firms, the mobility of people, and overall economic activity. His work has examined subjects such as international trade, city planning, and economic innovation.

Arkolakis, who was on leave this academic year, will teach “Economics of Space,” a new undergraduate course beginning this fall that studies how space and the innovations in transportation and communication methods affect regional disparities in incomes. Students will use basic linear algebra and elements from the theory of networks together with geospatial methods and data to understand the allocation of economic activity across space. 

Arkolakis grew up in Athens and Crete, and he returns to Greece often. He is particularly attached to Crete, where his family has roots.

“We’re from a small and remote village in the hills,” he said. “It is a very beautiful place, but it is also surprisingly diverse. People have moved there from all over the world, including the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, the Middle East, and Russia.

“It’s very peaceful there. There is a beach nearby. People are very open-minded about immigrants. It gives me pause when I think about the ongoing discussions about closed borders in the United States and Europe,” he said.

He pays close attention to current events in Greece, which has struggled to overcome a government-debt crisis. This is the first year the Bodossaki Prize has been awarded since 2008 due to the nation’s economic troubles.

Arkolakis said Greece must commit to reforming its pension system, modernizing its educational system, and becoming an export-oriented economy.

“I really hope that the government and the Greek people will have the courage to make these reforms because, if they don’t, they may suffer very bad consequences,” he said. “I’m not yet optimistic, but I hope we get there.”

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