New colleague Sascha Becker
The economist with a fascination for the past
As an economic historian, Sascha O. Becker is always dreaming of the perfect data set. He likes economics because it not only involves a mix of hard science modelling and statistical methods, but always has a narrative. And he believes narratives are important if you want to make a point.
Sascha is from Idar-Oberstein, a small town in Rheinland-Pfalz in Western Germany. He is a first generation academic. His mother worked at home and his father for the railways. This upbringing influenced his career choice.
“When I was deciding what to do after school my father, who was a civil servant with a lifetime job, suggested I should be a civil servant like him. He suggested I become a teacher and that sounded reasonable to me at the time.”
To save money, he decided to study in Bonn, where his grandmother lived – not realising it was the Germany's best university for maths and economics.
"I guess in the end I got some good training,” he says.
Sascha initially found the maths in his teaching degree very dry. Then a friend dragged him to an economics lecture and he understood how the maths might be applied.
He ultimately chose to continue with economics, focusing on economic history following after his PhD.
“My PhD supervisor in Florence, Andrea Ichino, always gave the advice that before you do empirical work you should ask yourself what the ideal data set would be for your hypothesis.
"I was working on the hypothesis that Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic doesn’t really explain the difference between denominations in terms of economic achievement. Instead, we thought that education might play a role, because Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, wanted everyone to be able to read the bible, which required people to be able to read at all.
"We thought the ideal data set might not be modern but historic, as Protestantism came about in the 16th century. We started digging in the archives and found census data from the 19th century and that’s how I accidentally used historic data for the first time.”
He has spent many hours in the Bavarian State library and the Vienna National library. Nowadays a lot of the material is digitised but he believes there is so much to learn from being in an archive.
“Walking along the shelves you discover other stuff that may be even more exciting than what you were initially looking for,” he says.
So what would be your ideal data set?
“It would be amazing if we knew more about individuals far back in time. There are some population numbers, but biographic data mostly only on famous people. But we know very little about ordinary people before the 1800s. The holy grail of economic history would be to say more about life in the countryside where there is very little data.”
His current research focuses on German economic history and with the help of data from as far back as the 1300s he has looked at the development of anti-Semitism and the economic factors behind it.
In another recent paper he tested the 'Uprootedness hypotheses' using data on Polish refugees after the Second World War, when Polish borders moved 300 km westwards, and found that those who were forced to leave everything behind did invest more in education – a good no one can take away from you.
“It’s a strong message that being uprooted and losing everything is life changing. But our finding that the kids of these people go on to be more educated is a silver lining to this experience of forced migration.”
Sascha has lived and worked in Paris, Florence, Munich, Scotland and, for the last nine years, in Warwick, England, with a year on sabbatical in Los Angeles in between. With Brexit looming he started looking at other options and was impressed by the ambitious stance of Monash.
“Monash has risen to be one of the best, perhaps even the best, economics department in the Southern Hemisphere. I thought: ‘If they can get Yves Zenou, whose work I admire, to move across the world, maybe it could be good for me too.’ And my wife said yes so here we are.”
He appreciates the cross-departmental cooperation, with computer science, for example. Another attraction was SoDa Lab with their methods of working with different sources of data and the growing group of network economists.
“People in the department have open doors and we have a lot of social activities. A department is not a collection of CVs but a collection of humans who interact. That’s the Monash vibe which I like.”
And Melbourne has lived up to every expectation from the green spaces, the weather, beaches and national parks to the culture and food. When Sascha isn’t working he’s either running or cycling. He also loves classical music and jazz as well as spending time with family and friends. His favourite composer is Dmitri Shostakovich.
Not only for the music itself but for his incredible life navigating 20th Century Soviet Union and writing captivating music.
“That’s what I do in the office. I listen to classical music while I work on my papers.”