Growing up in Carlsbad, California, Ian McDonough spent much of his time skateboarding with future pros in his backyard pool. He had plans to go to school to be a veterinarian but the reality that he couldn’t save every animal just didn’t sit well with him. A friend’s invitation to take an international economics class opened his eyes to a different career path entirely. Ten or so years after starting his Ph.D. in economics at Southern Methodist University and six years after coming to UNLV, McDonough has earned tenure as a professor in the economics department at Lee Business School and has found a niche in researching the economics of food insecurity. Though he still thinks the life of a veterinarian would have been good, he finds joy every day through teaching and research.
What inspired you to get into your field?
My background is a little convoluted. I started out wanting to be a veterinarian, dropped that idea and got into information systems and computer science, and then somehow found myself in an international econ class my senior year — my friend convinced me to take it with him — and I thought it was extremely intuitive and easy. The professor in that class also introduced us to a book called The Armchair Economist, which really resonated with me. Although I was never officially an economics undergrad at Utah State University, I did complete a master’s degree there. That’s really how it worked; I stumbled into an international econ class, and really connected with this book. I now send this book to some of our students who are wondering what economists do.
How do you explain what you do?
I don’t think anyone grows up wanting to be an economist. It’s a great question and one of the hurdles faced by the discipline — it’s often viewed purely as a business-type degree but that’s not the case. I try to explain to people that there are some fundamental principles governing how economists think and we can apply these principles and subsequent tools to a whole host of subject areas. Of course you can go into a traditional business setting, but you can also do public policy work, nonprofit-type work, health economics — my colleague Dr. Makayla Palmer is a phenomenal health economist — you can study environmental economics, you can do virtually anything given the set of principles and tools learned as an economist. There are unlimited wants and a finite set of resources. As economists, we are trying to figure out how to best allocate these resources. These principles apply to everything. I often tell my students to find me some conflict or crisis around the world, and I can then tell them how the core of that problem is grounded in economics.
How did you find your way to researching food insecurity?
I didn’t realize what a large problem it was in this country. Call it naïve, but I didn’t know. My first year here — and even now — I was in very close contact with my advisor from when I did my Ph.D. He was working on a grant with the North Texas Food Bank and asked if I wanted to be part of the grant looking at food insecurity. And, because this topic falls broadly under the umbrella of labor and applied microeconomics, I really started to dig into it and was dumbfounded with how large of a problem it is. The one thing that really struck me is that it’s not purely an income story. There are individuals who are well above the poverty line that are food-insecure yet you have people below the poverty line who are food secure. In short, I’m trying to understand the underlying determinants of food insecurity because people are really quick to say it’s just an income story.
What is your research goal?
My research is two-pronged — one strand of my research is trying to solve econometric challenges. The second is applying these econometric tools to understand causal relationships, for example what are the key drivers of food insecurity. This is easier said than done, but is really important because solving pressing issues like this requires that we can measure and gauge the effectiveness of various inputs, policies, and/or interventions. With respect to food insecurity, you can give people food, but that is not a long-term solution. If we can better understand other potential determinants, for example the work I’ve done with financial literacy, then endowing people with these skills may be better at keeping people food secure over the long-run. It is also the hope that endowing people with this type of human capital will be long-lived and not a simply a transient gain. It’s the old adage — give a person a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime. A lot of what we are trying to do, myself and my colleagues in this area, is trying to teach people how to “fish” and understand the best ways to “fish.”
Tell me about an a-ha moment in your career.
A-ha moments happen all the time for me in the classroom. I have a couple papers that were spurred from these a-ha moments while lecturing about some econometric concept. I’ve always understood things, but I still have these moments teaching where I almost get paralyzed and stop mid-lecture with my students just staring at me, and I realize, “Oh my gosh, this is what it means.” That’s why I think it’s very hard to decouple teaching from research.
What problem in the world would you most like to fix?
Persistent and disparate poverty is completely unacceptable within the United States — and the world for that matter — but I don’t know what the answer is.
Outside of your research, what are you passionate about?
I’m a huge hockey fan. I have played since I was a kid and even played in college. I even know how to drive a Zamboni; how many people can say that? I love the game. It’s a game that is unlike any other sport and requires such a unique set of skills. I’ve been watching the L.A. Kings since 1987 — pre-Gretzky — and when Gretzky was traded to the Kings in ’88 hockey was forever changed in the Lower 48. And by the way, the only reason hockey can thrive in a place like Las Vegas, including having a hockey team at UNLV, is because of that trade sending Gretzky to L.A. which completely changed the composition of the hockey fan base. And even though I still have some deep-seated loyalty to the Kings, I am definitely rooting for the Knights.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think I would tell my younger self to calm down a little bit. You don’t need to be wound so tight. In fact, failure is an opportunity for learning. I have been so driven by the fear of failure that I’m worried I somehow inhibited the amount I could have learned.
What trait do you most like about yourself?
I’d like to believe I am pretty level-headed in the throes of chaos, unless that chaos impacts my kids’ health. Then I can go from 0-60 in a matter of seconds and panic.
You just won Megabucks and want to give back to the university. What would you support and why?
I would definitely try to spread it around a little bit, but I would make sure the arts and music departments get a sizeable chunk. I think the arts often get short-changed and are unfortunately underappreciated. I’d also give to the UNLV ice hockey team to fund some scholarships. And, of course, I would give to Lee Business School.
During a time of remote working and remote teaching, what does your day typically look like?
My typical day starts early and ends late. It usually starts with making breakfast for my kids and then homeschooling for a while. My wife and I try to get work done during the day and then try to get more done once the kids are in bed. I don’t even know the days of the week anymore — I’m just resigned to having seven Mondays.
Tell us how your remote teaching experience.
For me it’s not just about teaching, I still have research deadlines, I still have grant deadlines. And the deadlines just seem to be piling up right now on top of bringing two courses online. It will be interesting to see how all of this evolves, but overall it’s going well.
What’s the silver lining in all of this for you?
I am incredibly lucky to be able to hang out with my family all day. As frustrating as that can be sometimes, I am super grateful. I have awesome kids and an incredible wife.