Tim Hamilton

May 12, 2014
Economics professor talks about his approach to research and teaching

By Christina Cribari, ’14

After earning a Ph.D. in economics from North Carolina State University, Tim Hamilton decided to head north and join the Robins School of Business as the newest assistant professor of economics.

Specializing in environmental economics, Hamilton is researching the way society values environmental goods, and the impact of this valuation on environmental quality. He also developed two new classes geared toward thinking about environmental conservation from an economic perspective.

What made you want to join the faculty at the Robins School of Business?

It reminded me of Bentley University, where I went as an undergrad. It has the same kind of teaching-research mix, high-quality education, small classes, and you get to know your professors. After four years of that, I realized that I very much enjoyed that model. I get to do research, but I still get to teach, so it’s a good balance.

What does your research currently focus on?

I do what’s called non-market valuation, a sub-field of environmental economics. The idea is to think of the environment like we think of any other good: goods generate value. It’s easy to see the value of private goods — you can just go figure out how much they sold for at the store. It’s much more difficult to figure out the values of some of these environmental goods. We know that they’re generating values, we know that they’re good things, and we know that we get some kind of welfare loss when we remove them, so the idea is that we need to put a number on them. We want to quantify how much the environment is worth. This involves trying to think of ways to identify consumer behavior, how people are consuming the environment, and what part of this is the value of environmental goods.

How did you become interested in environmental economics and non-market valuation?

I was an economics and finance major, so chances are that I was going to end up working in the private sector, and that really didn’t appeal to me that much. I was worried I was going to get a job and stop doing economics. I had a lot of questions that were unanswered to figure out how the world works. I talked to one of my professors at Bentley and he said that grad school was a good option. I had another professor at the time who was writing an environmental economics textbook, and so I looked into that. When I saw that these two things could be combined I jumped on it.

What topics would you be interested in for future research?

Another field I’m interested in is generally referred to as “environmental justice,” which is essentially thinking of distributional issues rather than efficiency issues. Now we’re thinking about who are the winners and who are the losers.

The classic story is that a firm wants to set up a factory and says, “emissions are bad, economic activity is good.” Where are they going to go? They’re going to go to the place where land is cheap. Where is land cheap? It tends to be in the poorer neighborhoods, and so you have the increase in costs are disproportionately borne by the people at the lower end of the income distribution. There is this question of what is fair?

What do you hope is the impact of your research?

The ultimate goal is to make sure that living standards and quality of life increases. That’s way down the line. I could be dead for 200 years before even having a marginal impact on that.

I look at my professors when I was a grad student. They didn’t have a Nobel Prize, they weren’t running the World Bank, but they had really, really good papers. I hope that somewhere down the line students who are really interested in economics will pick up a paper and say, “Hamilton in 2014 showed x, y and z. That’s pretty interesting.”

If you could choose another field, what would it be?

Physics. What explains the world better than economics? It’s physics.

How do you approach teaching your classes?

The 200-level is really hard for me, because a lot of the students are non-business students who are much more environmentally focused. I have to take a step away from economics, which is good for me. I think about how we use economics in the broader scheme to explain the world.

The 300-level is fun. It can be nitty gritty, really technical. That stuff is not always the most important part of economics, but that, for me, can be the most fun.