Douglas  Allen

MA (Econ),  1984
BA (Econ),  1983

“Economics is a body of theory, and theory is there to help us figure out the answers to the puzzles around us” says Dr. Douglas Allen, Professor of Economics at Simon Fraser University, and an SFU alumnus (BA (Hons.) 1983, MA 1984).

Allen is an economist who likes to apply economics theory to everyday problems, and has won multiple fellowships and awards for his research and books. His latest book “The Institutional Revolution” was awarded the 2014 Douglass C. North Research Prize for best published research in institutional and organization economics. His research often questions historical puzzles and uses economics as a lens to explain these events. For example, Allen has examined: how did the 18th century English Navy manage to feed up to 400,000 men spread around the world every day, when no other country could do so? Why did the longbow get used by only one country and for only a short period of time when it was so lethal? And why have North American farmers who lease land over the past few years switched to cash rent contracts after centuries of share contracts?

Allen never anticipated his current profession, or even a being in the economics field. Originally aspiring to be a corporate lawyer, he began his post-secondary education as a commerce (now business administration) major at SFU in 1978. However he found that he was more passionate about the economics courses. Persuaded by professors Stephen Easton and Clyde Reed, he switched into the honours economics program in his fourth year.

Allen enjoyed his economics classes, especially the advanced microeconomics class taught by professor Chris Hall. When he finished up his undergraduate studies in the summer of 1982, he could not leave the Fraser Valley for personal reasons, and so, yearning to take a graduate economics course offered by Hall, he decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Economics at SFU. Allen reminisces “What I learned from Chris and others, is the joy of coming to an understanding of some type of real puzzling behaviour. That’s what got me excited when I was 22, and it’s what I like now”. Dr. Allen had immediate success, winning an international award, the Western Economics Association’s Best Graduate Paper Prize, for his Master’s thesis. He also found mentors in professors Tom Borcherding and John Chant, who encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D in Economics at the University of Washington.

Allen first went to Carleton University, but then came back to SFU in 1990 when, as he puts it “SFU offered me a job, and my wife accepted it.” In 2000 he became a Burnaby Mountain Professor in the Department of Economics for outstanding contributions to research and teaching. As recipient of the 2009 SFU Excellence in Teaching Award, Allen is passionate about engaging student’s minds by teaching them the theories of economics through interesting questions. Allen is often the first instructor to introduce students to economics. “I love to teach Introduction to Microeconomics because of the power of the core economics ideas, and their philosophical content” says Dr. Allen who has also authored two course textbooks.

By teaching theory with applications to actual real world problems, not “a list of economic topics, pure mathematics, or data”, Allen keeps economics practical, topical, and engaging for students. “What’s the point of theory if it isn’t useful in explaining the world around us? And what’s the point of showing students a bunch of graphs and numbers if there isn’t a systematic way to think about them? And what’s the point of telling students about some complicated and subtle issue that only academics care about? I try to use examples from our day to day lives such as driving in traffic, fighting with your boyfriend, shopping at Walmart with coupons, or why the latest Batman movie makes no sense.” Allen explains, “If an idea doesn’t have an application to real life, I don’t bring it up with students just learning economics. I hate widget questions.”

Allen also enjoys teaching 4th year and graduate level courses to discuss specific questions which are more at the current frontier of the discipline. “Math, logic and verbal skills are three critical skills for success in Economics” according to Allen. But skills alone are not enough to be a successful Economist, if you want to pursue a graduate degree in economics, “You’d better love Economics” says Allen.

Allen believes that with the greater computing power and data accessibility of today, economics can examine questions that were unapproachable in the past. As an SFU economics alumnus and now SFU economics professor, Douglas Allen continues to inspire students to apply the principles of economics to their personal lives and beyond.

- Written by the Department of Economics

Submitted by: Rebecca Ho

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