Interview with Mark J. Ratkus
1. What first made you want to study economics?
I first wanted to study French or math, and was even considering science. However, the university required me to take an economics course, which I was not looking forward to because I thought economics was just about stocks and bonds . . . Oh Jesus! But it turned out to be more of a social science concerned with different aspects like poverty, the environment and education. More importantly, there was this one book I read in that class, “Private Wants and Public Needs” by Edward Phelps. It talked about how markets catered to people with money but issues like clean air or good schools the government had registered as a demand it wouldn't produce. I found this social side of economics to be more interesting then the business side of it. And as my course went by I fell more and more in love with economics.
2. Why do you believe that economics is an important subject to study/learn?
In a democratic society I don’t understand how someone can be a voter and not have some simple and clear notion of the role of economics in policy issues.
3. Describe in detail your current research.
Right now I’m working on a new course, a political course of Latin America. This would be switching gears from a previous course on Asian economics to the economics of Latin America. The course focuses on developing the economy of Third World Countries.
For my short term research I had decided to be good at a foreign language so I studied Spanish. The more I studied it, the more I got into the interests of the countries and their cultures, as well as their economics and politics. As for the long term, I’m working on pulling the information together for the course in the spring.
4. Professionally, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of spearheading the new major. It’s interesting that not a lot of people are studying it but if we didn’t offer it, we wouldn’t exist as a department. It’s hard to see why people like certain things and not others. It’s hard to know why the number of economic majors is low.
5. Professionally, what would you still like to pursue?
I would like to pursue an application for counsel of international scholars and work with faculty in Nicaragua to update their curriculum. I would be trying to establish internships or some teaching abroad for another semester. At La Salle, students have always had the ability to obtain or get help with internships but most of the time no one took advantage of this. I revamped this system and publicized it in here to raise awareness and encourage students, and that’s what I want to do in Nicaragua.
What motivated the renovation in Nicaraguan schools was the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). One part of CAFTA requires signatories to prepare their people for meaningful participation, and as signatories, the Nicaraguan schools want to update their curriculums to fulfill the requirements of this treaty. They want their students to be aware of international issues and understand the concept of comparative advantage. Internships abroad or locally with international companies would be ideal since it’s important for Nicaraguan students once they graduate, to be able to use English with companies involved in international commerce, so they are more ready to hit the ground running.
6. What continues to make teaching a satisfying experience for you and why?
I suppose it comes down to the enthusiasm of students. Their enthusiasm tempers my own, and teaching is satisfying if students care. A good thing about teaching is working with students to discover their interests. For the senior seminar students must do extensive research on a topic. In it I ask my students “what do you want to study?” and most are thrown back. They are used to going to class and being told what to learn so it’s the first time they have to think about what they really want to study and do in life. Most are not sure and it takes time for them to figure it out, but this is part of growing up and doing new stuff. It’s not easy but it’s good.
I like to use in class Albert Einstein’s quote when students are having trouble with their research. “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?” The process of figuring out what they are doing is like a tug of war. Sometimes students start off with one topic then discover they don’t like it or that there’s something else they are more interested in and they change their focus. Research is a product of what people learn, and I’m interested in the process, not just the product.
7. Of all the organizations you are in, which do you enjoy the most and why?
As I have gotten older the number of organizations I’m involved in has dropped. I contribute to a lot of organizations financially, but I’m not actively involved in many. I would say the one I enjoy the most is Dignity Philadelphia, the Philadelphia chapter for Dignity U.S.A., which is a welcoming congregation for GLBT Catholics, their families and friends.
A woman and her daughter joined because they were looking for a place that had both the Catholic element and a bigger role for women. A couple who lost their only son to HIV and AIDS joined Dignity Philadelphia after the pastor from their previous congregation refused to bury their son because he was gay. This family is very family-oriented people and was devastated by this treatment. Dignity Philadelphia is just a very supportive community open to anyone where spirituality and liturgical practice is important.
8. Besides economics what other subjects interest you the most?
Spanish language and culture interest me the most. I enjoy traveling and I’ve been very fortunate in this aspect. For two years I worked as a teacher at La Salle in the Philippines and visited surrounding countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. I have also been to Egypt, Israel and Lithuania and looked at art in Italy.
I have also traveled to many Latin American countries. I have been to Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Argentina. It has been amazing. I’m particularly fond of Argentina, I consider it my second home. I have friends there and when I go see them I make sure to visit both old and new places. I still want to see the Patagonia, Mendoza, and San Carlos de Bariloche.
On the plane ride to Argentina we fly at 30,000 feet and I get to see an amazing view of the Andes Mountain Range which is at some peaks over 20,000 feet high. Another thing I like about Argentina is that it has a high quality of life yet everything is so cheap. There wine and beef is consumed in huge quantities and the quality to price ratio of both products is surprisingly high as well.
9. Outside of the classroom, what activities or hobbies do you enjoy the most?
I like to cook because I like to eat. I also play tennis whenever I can. I like watching sports. Mainly I’m a hockey and football spectator. And I’m also a big fan of Pittsburgh, which is where I’m from.