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2013 Economics Department Graduation Ceremony

May 19, 2013

The Secret Life of Ken Elzinga

Professor has written four murder mysteries under a pseudonym


Professor Ken Elzinga would kill to teach you economics. On paper, at least.

The revered U.Va. professor—who has taught more than 40,000  U.Va. students since 1967—has all the while been penning murder mysteries on the side, under the pen name Marshall Jevons, with a protagonist who solves crime using economic theory.....

To read Ms. Jaffee's article, please click here


Career Events

Resources and Links for U.Va. Career Events

Economics Career Office Events for the 2015-2016 fall semester

Locations are listed in CAVLink and RSVPs are required to attend events

Date             Time                     Program


Multiple events, See CAVLink

On-Grounds Interviewing Prep Week


5PM - 9 PM

Consulting Symposium


8 AM – 11 AM

Case Consulting Practice Sessions *


7 PM – 9 PM

Boutique Finance Night


12 PM - 1:30 PM Corporate Finance Career Panel


6 PM – 7:30 PM

Consumer Goods Career Panel


6 PM – 8 PM

Economic & Litigation Consulting Night


5:30 PM-7:30 PM State and Local Government Career Panel**
9/25 1 PM-1:50 PM Federal Consulting and Government Jobs Talk


12 PM 1:30 PM

Big Data Career Panel


12 PM 1:30 PM

Banking, Trading, Asset Management Career Panel


5:30 PM - 7 PM

Venture Capital & Private Equity 101


9 AM - 12 PM

Economics of Water Talk


1 PM – 2 PM

Conservation Career Talk– Public & Private Sector Jobs


6 PM – 8 PM

Law Career Panel (Finance, Environmental & More)

* First priority will go to students who have attended the Consulting Symposium on 9/3.

**Tentative, based on guest availability.

ECO programs will be open to all majors after priority registration for economics majors closes two days before the event.

The ECO encourages employers to participate in ECO events by writing to












Job Search Resources

Looking for a job? Start here.

Refer to our Job Search Resources for Econ Majors handout as a starting point in your career search! The document includes job databases, guides, and University-specific resources.


After Teaching 45,000 Students, Elzinga in a Class By Himself

To see the video click here

It’s likely that Ken Elzinga has impacted more students than any professor in University of Virginia history.

By the spring of 2015, the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics had taught nearly 45,000 students. That’s more than the population of Charlottesville, and more than any professor on record at U.Va., according to George Stovall, director of the Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies.

Those numbers stem from more than four decades of teaching one of U.Va.’s largest and most popular courses. The supply of seats in one of Elzinga’s two 500-person “Introduction to Microeconomics” classes never quite seems to meet demand. As for his smaller, 20-person anti-trust seminar, taught in the spring semester, students are advised to request entrance into the class two years ahead of time.

During his 47-year run at the University, Elzinga has become nationally renowned for both his illustrative teaching and his work in the field of economics, and famous for his personal commitments to each of his students outside the classroom.

Ken Elzinga
Photo by Sanjay Suchak

He’s also a man who, at age 73, spends his free time driving street rods, and still water skis every summer. Though that’s a side his students rarely see, there’s always a hint of eccentricity in their otherwise-inconspicuous professor who never seems to run out of brightly colored ties.

Teaching Generations

“Mr. Elzinga is a very humble man, very unassuming. He comes across as a kind older man who is amiable and loves what he does,” said Alyssa Mazenic, a first-year student who took Elzinga’s class last fall. “Coming into the class, I didn’t really know what to expect; I’d never had a course on economics. … But it was better than I expected. I was very impressed with his manner and the way that he was very approachable, and I thought that he really cares about each one of his students.”

Like Mazenic, Howard Siegel, a 1970 graduate of U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce, initially was intimidated by the sheer number of students in the classroom when he took Elzinga’s first-ever introductory economics class in 1967, after the new professor had arrived as a freshly minted Ph.D. graduate of Michigan State University. But both found the class, and its teacher, to be one of their favorites.

On the last day of class, Siegel distinctly remembers Elzinga coming up to him in the Old Cabell Hall auditorium and telling Siegel that he was his personal “guide” to see if he was getting his points across. “I'm glad he stayed and enjoys a good reputation,” Siegel wrote in an email.

It’s his relatability, along with excellent teaching, that has made Elzinga so prolific.

He’s said he doesn’t get bored – or in economic terms, the utility he gains from teaching hasn’t diminished with each year. “Students are new every year,” he told the Cavalier Daily in a 2013 interview. “I’d get bored if it were the same group of students for four years, and they’d get bored too. But it’s a real treat to be able to work with young people.”

As generations of students have come to love him, taking his class has become a family affair. Kim and John Hermsmeier, 1985 graduates of the College of Arts & Sciences, both took Elzinga’s class, and two of their three children followed suit.

“My son was so inspired by Mr. Elzinga that he is now majoring in economics,” Kim Hermsmeier said. “My younger daughter has applied early action to U.Va., and it is her hope to take Mr. Elzinga’s economics class next year. She is currently reading my 30-plus-year-old copy of ‘Murder at the Margin.’” Co-written by Elzinga and William L. Breit, an economics professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas under the combined pen name “Marshall Jevons,” the book is one of four economics-centered mystery novels that Elizinga often assigns as reading to his Econ 201 students.

The Hermsmeiers recounted how Elzinga annually invites students without a place to go for Thanksgiving into his home.

“My first thought was to regret that I had a family to go home to, for I would have preferred to hang out with the Elzingas and some fellow Wahoos,” John Hermsmeier said. “Now a generation later, we get a message from our daughter asking if we had plans for Thanksgiving, because she sure would like to go to the Elzingas’!”

A Commitment to Servanthood

Elzinga is heavily engaged in the University community, and specifically the Christian community. In 1976, he co-founded the Center for Christian Study, an education and outreach organization for students, faculty, staff and community members located just outside Grounds on the U.Va. Corner.

“He’s one of the most generous individuals I know, but he does it quietly,” said Shelley Pellish, director of administration and development at the center, which students refer to as “The Stud.”

“He’ll come over and eat with students weekly, and will get to know them and pray with them,” she said. “We’re part of a network of 20 campus ministries [on Grounds], and he speaks at many of them during the semester, and he also travels to speak engagements at other colleges.”

Elzinga also promotes undergraduate research on Grounds through his Marshall Jevons Fund, which gives small grants of up to $1,000 to undergraduate research projects and academic travel in the field of economics.

Perhaps the most telling picture of Elzinga’s commitment to his students is his vow to serve every one who shows up to his famous office hours, which begin early in the afternoon and can stretch until 7 p.m.

“He always makes sure to mention his office hours [every time] we have lecture,” said Elizabeth Hofer, another first-year student who took Elzinga’s class last semester. “When you go, it doesn’t necessarily have to be for help with the material, but it’s for him to get to know you, because he doesn’t have the option to get to know students during class. He makes time every day of the week if it’s possible to get to know students. I think it’s a really great testament to his character.”

She and Mazenic are both continuing their studies in economics this semester, and Mazenic has already decided that she wants to declare her major in the field.

“Mr. Elzinga is the reason why I want to study economics at U.Va,” she said. “He impacts every single student that sits in this auditorium. I hope I can someday be as passionate about my career.”

by Mitchell Powers & Lauren Jones

Economist Seeks to Bring Together ‘Research at the Frontiers’ in Big Data

As the sheer volume of data in a range of computationally intensive fields grows bigger, computer scientists, engineers and researchers from across the disciplines are finding that work involving “big data” increasingly lands at the intersection of disciplines.  Denis Nekipelov, a new associate professor of economics at the University of Virginia, calls it “research at the frontiers.”.....To read more of this article, click here.

Economist Seeks to Make Med School ‘Match Day’ More Efficient, Fair

This month, newly minted doctors and military cadets are leaving the University of Virginia and many other schools for assigned residency and branch assignments around the globe. These movements number in the millions, but most are directed by a simple class of “matching algorithms” – algorithms that one U.Va.-led research team wants to make more efficient and fair.

Peter Troyan, an assistant professor of economics, became interested in the match algorithm while a friend in medical school was anxiously awaiting his residency assignment. Troyan was eager to understand the equation that was driving the next steps of his friend’s life and those of many others worldwide......

For more on this article, click here.

U.Va. Economist Finds Each New Immigrant Creates 1.2 Jobs for Local Workers

U.Va. Economist Finds Each New Immigrant Creates 1.2 Jobs for Local Workers



Politicians on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns about immigrants taking American jobs, but one University of Virginia economist makes a compelling case for the opposite effect.

Dubbing immigrants “a shot in the arm” for local economies, economics professor John McLaren found that immigrant workers actually create new local jobs, many of them subsequently filled by American-born employees.

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently circulated the study, which was conducted by McLaren and Gihoon Hong, who earned his Ph.D. in economics from U.Va. in 2010. McLaren and Hong find that each new immigrant generates 1.2 local jobs.

Previous economics research has mostly focused on how immigration increases the labor supply and consequently drives wages down. However, McLaren contends that this conclusion fails to account for one key factor: immigrants’ impact on the market as consumers.

“In reality, immigrants are not just workers, but consumers,” he said. “They often bring dependents with them. They get haircuts, they stop at the diner, they go to the hardware store.”

Those local businesses benefit from the increased demand and often have to hire extra workers, which increases the demand for local labor and consequently raises local wages, McLaren said. Additionally, the increase in consumer demand can sustain small local businesses that might have otherwise folded, perpetuating a more robust local economy that benefits both native and non-native workers.

“If the effect is large enough, local workers actually benefit … both in wage increases and as consumers enjoying livelier businesses in town,” McLaren said.

Typically, McLaren said, the “shot in the arm” effect is large enough to significantly improve the local economy, because 62 percent of the created jobs are in the non-tradable sector, meaning that they provide services rather than manufactured goods. In addition, the data indicates that an inflow of immigrants to a particular town tends to attract non-immigrant workers from other towns and increase local wages in non-traded services.

“Most of the American economy is made up of non-tradable goods or services,” McLaren said. “I am actually surprised that this particular ‘shot in the arm’ effect has not been hunted down by previous research, because the service economy is so enormous.”

New immigrants might take service or manufacturing jobs, but they spend some of their money on services – such as haircuts or restaurants – and consequently pipe money into the heart of the nation’s economy.

McLaren and Hong’s findings are based on census data from 1980 to 2000, which attempts to collect information from both documented and undocumented immigrants, though the number of undocumented immigrants is likely higher than reported.

Given the fiery rhetoric surrounding immigration as the 2016 presidential campaign begins to heat up, his results have significant political implications.

“I certainly think that the evidence weakens a lot of the economic case for tightening immigration [restrictions],” he said, citing the strong correlation his team found between an influx of immigrants and an increase in local employment.

One counter-argument to McLaren and Hong’s position is called reverse causation, which contends that immigrants are more likely to go to a town that is experiencing an economic boom, rather than to a struggling town. Consequently, the argument goes, job expansion is causing immigration to a particular town, instead of the immigrants themselves causing job expansion.

However, McLaren and Hong were careful to account for this variable in their study, using a widely accepted corrective mechanism developed by prominent economist David Card. As a result, McLaren said, his conclusions hold even after correcting for reverse causation, further weakening long-held assumptions that immigration drives down wages.

“Although a lot of politicians couch arguments in economic terms, a lot of the underlying or unspoken arguments are not economic at all,” he said. “These results together with other studies will make it a little bit harder to make an economic case against freer immigration.”



Lower Rainfall Could Spark Domestic Violence, Dowry Killings in India

As monsoon season arrives in India, the nation’s meteorological department has warned citizens to expect lower rainfall levels for the second year in a row, on the heels of one of the deadliest heat waves in history. The predicted drought could prove dangerous not only for India’s economy but also, according to one University of Virginia economist, for its female population.

Examining the effects of climate change in India, Sheetal Sekhri, an assistant professor of economics, found that decreases in rainfall are correlated with increases in domestic violence and with dowry killings, in which a husband (and his family) kills his wife so that he can remarry and obtain new dowry payments.

According to Sekhri’s study, one standard deviation decrease from long-term average rainfall correlates with approximately an 8 percent increase in dowry killings in the affected region.

This year, India is predicted to receive only 88 percent of its long-term average rainfall during the four-month monsoon season, which begins in June. Given the precipitation variability expected with climate change, such deficits could become more common and more dangerous in a country where 600 million Indians are directly supported by agriculture.

“Vulnerable populations, generally, are expected to face high burdens when we see climate change,” Sekhri said. “If we do see more droughts, it is possible that we would see an increase in domestic violence and dowry deaths.”

Sekhri and her coauthor examined data gathered in each of India’s 583 districts from 2002 to 2007 and found two key pieces of evidence. Agricultural production generally fell steeply when rainfall levels were lower, causing economic distress, and dowry payments generally increased in these times of distress. Other forms of sexual assault and crime did not display the same correlation, leading Sekhri to believe that domestic violence leading to dowry killings is more strongly linked to economic hardship than to social or religious motivation.

“To us, it looks very compelling that rainfall deficits increase dowry deaths,” she said.

Having published her research on dowry deaths in the Journal of Development Economics, Sekhri has turned her attention to a related climate issue that has claimed thousands of Indian lives this year: excessive heat.

Her team has aggregated daily temperature data for every district in India from 1996 to 2012, along with each district’s annual death rates, which measures deaths per 1,000 people.

“Increases in above-average degree days, I can conclusively say, will increase crude death rates,” she said. “What we know less about are the mitigation strategies. How can [India] best adapt to changing climate patterns?”

Seeking solutions, Sekhri’s team, in ongoing research, has gathered additional data from across India to quantify how improved irrigation and access to aquifers and electricity could lower the crude death rate in areas suffering from excessive heat. So far, the impacts of such relief efforts appear significant, she said.

In relation to precipitation shortages, Sekhri’s team also examined solutions to economically motivated dowry killings, which unfortunately proved murkier.

“We thought that if political representation of women increased, it might lead to changes in policing, as well as make more women willing to come forward before the situation escalated to death,” Sekhri said.

However, data was limited by the scarcity of women holding national office in India, and Sekhri’s team did not see any significant decreases in dowry killings in areas where women did win national elections. Increases in female representation at municipal and village levels might prove more helpful, she said.

For now, Sekhri hopes that her research can bring awareness to the social implications of climate variations and spark life-saving prevention efforts as India and other developing countries come face-to-face with the human impact of climate change.




A Beautiful Algorithm? The Risks of Automating Online Transactions

The online ad that led you to your new favorite pair of shoes might seem innocuous, but according to University of Virginia Associate Professor of Economics and Computer Science Denis Nekipelov, the algorithms behind such ads could lead to an unforeseen financial crash – something he hopes his research will prevent.

Nekipelov’s study of the automation of online advertising, co-authored with Vasilis Syrgkanis, a researcher at Microsoft, and Éva Tardos, a professor at Cornell University, struck a nerve among industry giants and was named “Best Paper” at the ACM Conference on Economics and Computation, a prestigious international conference for computer science. 

Companies like Google, Microsoft or Facebook allocate advertising space through automated auctions. Advertisers place bids in the hope that their product appears when you search for something like “black high heels.” Humans are physically incapable of placing real-time bids for every query, so automating the bid process was a natural step.

In theory, automated auctions should arrive at an optimum price via John Nash’s equilibrium principle, enshrined in pop culture by the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” The principle assumes bidders fully understand other bidders’ strategies and will use that knowledge to arrive at their own stable bidding strategies. In practice, Nekipelov’s research demonstrates that the Nash equilibrium is unrealistic for today’s online advertising markets.

“As convenient as it is to assume equilibrium, I don’t comprehend how it could be even remotely replicated by the data,” Nekipelov said, pointing out the rapid rate of change as thousands of new search queries are entered every second. Bidding strategies cannot remain static enough to achieve equilibrium.

Setting aside the Nash equilibrium, Nekipelov and his co-authors studied a new approach using learning algorithms – equations that make real-time adjustments based on the results of each auction. Using search data from Microsoft, they essentially asked, “What happens when we turn our pricing structures over to these intelligent algorithms? Can it go terribly wrong?”

“In one sense, learning algorithms are really good for advertisers. The algorithm will do the work and put them somewhere near their optimal bid,” Nekipelov said. “At the same time, that is actually a bit scary. What are the consequences of giving full trust to these automated bidding strategies? Could the market crash because everyone is using them?”

The team found that most advertisers are bidding at 60 percent of their value, meaning that they are paying only about two-thirds of real worth of an ad. This is good news for advertisers, but not so good for the advertising platform, as there is money left on the table.

Taken to extremes, this inefficiency could be dangerous; Nekipelov even likened it to a Terminator-style scenario with machines limiting human intervention. A misstep in one algorithm could illogically inflate or deflate prices and skew the market.

Take the case of Amazon’s $24 million book. An evolutionary biology book, “The Making of a Fly” by Peter Lawrence, was once priced at $23,698,655 on Amazon. The only two sellers offering new copies were each using price algorithms that exponentially responded to the other’s price increases. One seller’s algorithm raised the price, the other automatically followed suit and thus a $100 book was marketed for millions.

Situated in an obscure corner of the Internet, the price war was comic. But imagine if such a thing were to occur with companies like Facebook, with huge revenues and stocks at stake.

“Volatility in this market can be very bad and we want to know if learning algorithms increase the risk of these very oscillatory outcomes,” Nekipelov said.

Analyzing data from Microsoft’s Bing search engine, Nekipelov and his coauthors could predict how different learning algorithms would behave over time, creating a roadmap that will allow human beneficiaries to forecast and even reverse-engineer how a market will behave.

“The current results are pretty promising,” he said. “If the algorithms are reasonable from a computer science standpoint, we can predict what the outcomes will be.”

Unsurprisingly, companies like Facebook and Google were interested in predicting how their advertisers might behave and have approached the researchers to learn more. The implications could extend to almost any sector using automated algorithms to negotiate an optimum – from financial markets to automated driving.

A few decades down the road, if everyone is driving automated cars like the prototypes Google is churning out, Nekipelov speculated, traffic could be lessened by successful learning algorithms or snarled by unsuccessful ones.

Another example could involve curated content on news sites; showing people content optimized for their enjoyment could increase readership, but also polarize the population by affirming preconceived notions.

Negotiating such challenges will require tremendous collaboration among disciplines. Nekipelov, who serves on the advisory board of U.Va.’s Data Science Institute, has already begun bringing disciplines together for what he calls “research at the frontiers” – connecting computer science, economics and the social sciences.

“We are at the point now where social behavior is extremely connected with technology,” he said. “To understand how it all fits together, you need people with a clear knowledge of the technology and people comfortable with social sciences.”

Students who combine those two disciplines, Nekipelov believes, can successfully compete for top jobs at the technology companies reinventing the future. He hopes partnerships between the Data Science Institute and various science and liberal arts disciplines will help U.Va. students gain those skills.

Such partnerships could eventually give other markets the same clarity that Nekipelov and his co-authors have brought to online advertising, as advertising platforms, advertisers and consumers work to understand the online and offline implications of automation.