İzak Atiyas, who is an expert in many areas such as competition economics, regulation and electricity sector regulation, is currently working at Sabancı University in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He has worked for the World Bank as a specialist economist; he is a member of the American Economic Association, Economic Research Forum for Arab Countries, İran and Turkey. He has published many articles and book sections.
We hear lots of comments about economy on TV, the internet and newspapers and these comments are very confusing to me. Can you please make a brief description of what economy is?
Economics is a social science. A technical definiton is that it is the study of how to allocate scarce resources among competing ends. That’s a very technical definiton but it exists because resources are scarce, our bugdets are scarce, income is scarce and the budget of the government is scarce. Resources are never available in infinite amounts. So, because resources are not infinite, people have to decide on how to use them. Because we have a limited budget we can not buy everything that we want. So we have somehow to decide on what to buy. For example, there is “Consumer Theory”. Consumer theory is about how consumers decide on what to consume because they have a limited budget. So economics is the science of decision making at a general level. It is about how individuals, groups, social classes and even nations and governments decide on how to allocate their scarce resources. That’s what economics is.
You have a Ph.D. in economics from New York University and a B.A. in economics from Boğaziçi University. How do think university education in Turkey and in the USA compares?
There are very good undergraduate universities in Turkey, that is for sure. Boğaziçi, METU and now some of the private universities like Bilkent, Sabancı and Koç. I think these are very good undergraduate unviersities, generally and in economics as well. So when you graduate from these universities and if you are a good students you can continue to very good PHd programs in the USA. I think some of the PHD programs in Turkey are also good but the problem is that American universities are better known. So even if you get the same quality of education you would get in a PHD from an american university, when you finish university and go in to the job market you have a better chance if you have a PHD from an American university, especially if you want to be a professor.
What is the meaning and importance of competition in economics?
That is a good question. The study of competition comes under the general name of micro-economics. So, think of the economy in Turkey or any country. There are millions and millions of consumers, right? On the other hand there are thousands and thousands of firms. And each one of them decides independently on what to consume, what to produce etc, right? There should be chaos with so many people making independent decisions but the market mechanism somehow regulates these desicions and in the end we have sensible outcomes. You want a shirt, you are sure that somebody will produce the shirt that you want, you want something to eat, you are sure that somebody will be there to provide the food that you want. It is the market mechanism that makes this and the market mechanism works through competition. If you don’t have competition then we will have monopolies and firms will be able to dictate. But because of competition each firm tries to be better than then the others. That is how the market mechanism works.
You have worked in Bilkent University and now in Sabancı University. But before that you also worked for The World Bank. Have you now consciously decided to follow an academic career or was it just coincidence or what was offered? Is it more self-satisfying to work in an educational environment? Do you find more time for yourself?
Absolutely, that is exactly the reason. The World Bank was great. I think it is a very good institution. It is a bureucracy ofcourse, a huge bureucracy but you can do satisfying work there. However, when I went to Bilkent it was as a visiting assistent programmer so I had a visitor position there and I found out that you have much more control of your time. Compared to working in the World Bank, being in a university you work at least as much or perhaps more but you have more control of your time. You don’t have to be there 9 to 5. This business of being able to control your time is what made academia very attractive to me and that is why I decided to join the university.
How did you decide to study economics?
So when I finished my undergraduate degree and went to Columbia university in new York, I went there to study chemistry, actually. We had this wonderful teacher in high school, Mr Gibbs. He really made us love chemistry. He was a great teacher. So I loved chemistry and went Columbia to study it. Then, after the first year, I wanted to get involved in study in a field that had more social relevance. I think that’s how in the second year I switched to economics. Because I thought that it was a better way to understand society.
What should be the qualities of a person who is thinking of studying economics?
It depends. You should be comfortable with math and logic and if you want to do a PHD in economics then you should be comfortable with very rigorous math and statistics because a PHD in economics requires a very very strong mathematical background and you do a lot of mathematical modeling. You should also like abstract thinking because that is what you do in a PHD. Or you should be interested in social questions. That is another way to do a PHD in economics because you could do development economics, actually be motivated by real life questions and use lots of maths and statistics to deal with those questions. Overall, curiosity and mathematics.