Economics alumnus Gail Makinen Q&A

Economics alumnus Gail Makinen Q&A

Economics alumnus Gail Makinen Q&A


Gail Makinen’s career was built around the idea of making economics accessible to others. Makinen served as a professor, both at Wayne State University and at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He also prepared the nation’s most influential leaders as they tackled tough economic issues.

Makinen, who earned his Ph.D. at Wayne State in 1966, worked for the Congressional Research Service for nearly 20 years. There he was responsible for educating members of Congress about macroeconomics and international and domestic monetary policy. Makinen quickly learned how to frame economic issues in ways that his staff and members of Congress could understand. He also learned that, even when it came to clear-cut economic decisions, politics always played a role in Congress. Here Makinen shares more about his unique career and his advice for current students.

What was your job at the Congressional Research Service (CRS)?

CRS was the brainchild of Senator Robert Lafollette, Sr. It was set up as a part of the Library of Congress in July 1914 to provide the Congress with the best expertise on a wide range of topics (military, foreign affairs, economics, constitutional law, labor, and social welfare issue, education, etc). The advice given to members of Congress was to be on a non-partisan basis. I believe CRS today has about 800 employees. I retired in 2002 after being there for nearly 20 years.

What was your most memorable experience at the CRS?

I was asked to look into the investigation of the World War II records of the Swiss banks, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker. There were 54,000 unclaimed accounts that possibly belonged to the victims of the Holocaust. Investigators found inappropriate closing of accounts, failure to keep adequate records, and many cases of insensitivity to the efforts of victims or heirs of victims to claim dormant or closed accounts. The accounts were worth $44.2 million.

Why did you choose to go to Wayne State in the ’60s and why did you choose economics?  

I was an accounting major at Central Michigan when I was first exposed to economics. It took a while to admit it, but I had the wrong major. I nevertheless completed the accounting major and the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson was willing to finance an MBA for me at the University of Michigan if I would join their firm. That was a very tempting offer and coming from a family of modest means, something to give serious thought to.

However, I was working part-time for an economics professor at CMU who was very inspiring and one day in my senior year showed me a recruitment folder from the department of economics at Wayne State, which offered the possibility of a fully funded fellowship for three years. This fellowship was part of the National Defense Education Act, a post-sputnik program passed by Congress in 1958 to encourage graduate education. WSU had access to this money and had in 1959 set up its Ph.D. program in economics. I applied, was accepted, and became part of the third class of Ph.D. students in the fall of 1961.  

The reason I chose economics was that I had been thinking about how an economy functioned and the role of government in an economy for a number of years without knowing that there was a formal discipline that dealt with these matters. When I took my first economics course it was as if I had wondered how a clock worked and suddenly the face of the clock was opened and I saw how the wheels made the hands go round. It was a revelation and I was hooked.  In retrospect, I now realize that my views were very simplistic, but there was no going back. And, I had the desire to spread the gospel through teaching – the NDEA fellowships put a special emphasis on aspiring teachers.

How did a degree in economics benefited your career and contributed to your success?

It substantially broadened the range of jobs that I was qualified to hold and my ability to change jobs when I wanted to. But more important, I really enjoyed economics, and when you like your work, I believe you do a better job than if you are indifferent to what you do. Also, I believe satisfaction in your professional life feeds into your private life.

What motivated or inspired you to get a Ph.D.?

I realized that if I were to achieve my goal to teach at the university level, I would need a Ph.D. Also, the level and sophistication of knowledge I would need to do really good research could only be achieved with the additional course work required for the Ph.D. I should also note that I was inspired by two really great economics teachers. One was at WSU and his name was Peter Gray. He supervised both my M.A. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation.

My first published article was co-authored with Peter and he was both a mentor and good friend for the rest of his life – he died three years ago. I can pay him no finer tribute than to have treated my graduate students as he treated me. It would be hard to find a finer man on this earth than Peter. Both of these teachers made it possible for me to have had a very enjoyable professional life.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

My purpose in entering university life was to be a good teacher and publish research that was highly regarded by my peers. A number of my students have become accomplished persons in their professional lives and some of my research has been widely cited. One of the papers has garnered more than one hundred citations (called a home run) and a number have been reprinted in books of readings and in textbooks as real-world examples. I’m probably best known to people who do research in the field of hyperinflation – I wrote the entry for this subject in the Encyclopedia of Economics.

How would you describe your experience at WSU?

Quite simply a graduate school education had a profound effect on my life. It opened up opportunities that I never dreamed would be possible. Being an economic adviser to the members of Congress and Congressional committees, including writing questions that the Members would ask witnesses testifying on economic matters including Alan Greenspan, and testifying before congressional committees is pretty heady stuff. It never occurred to me that this would be a part of my life.

What advice would you give a student who is interested in wanting to pursue their doctorate, economics, or to attend university?

The available data show quite clearly that your lifetime income and stability of employment is directly related to the years of education you achieve. And to some degree, it increases the job choices you have and your ability to change jobs as the need arises. We live in a time in which technology is changing rapidly and any job that is highly repetitive will likely be replaced by a machine. Thus, education will be a lifelong experience – one must keep up with a changing world.  The plight of the steel and auto workers today is largely technology-driven. This will probably be increasingly common for other occupations (perhaps even for university teachers with the advent of Skype and email).