Profile with Tamma Carleton  

Tamma Carleton (Oregon & Magdalen 2011) is pursuing a PhD in Agricultural & Resource Economics at UC Berkeley . She was previously an economic research analyst for United States Federal Trade Commission. Her research interests include food security and environmental change. She holds an MSc in Environmental Change & Management, an MSc in Economics for Development from the University of Oxford, and a BA in Economics from Lewis & Clark College.

Rhodes Project: What’s currently playing on your iPod?

Tamma Carleton: I’m a huge podcast nerd! I have about five podcasts that I update weekly and listen to when I run. Very little music, lots of podcasts.

Rhodes Project: If you could meet with any female figure, who would it be?

Tamma Carleton: I would love to meet Vandana Shiva. She is an Indian environmentalist who looks at the intersection of climate change, food security, and development in India. There are a lot of topics on which she and I disagree – she demonizes industrialized agriculture and fossil fuel dependent economies and idealizes the idea of small scale farming as a solution to global food security challenges. I care about and research the same issues that she does, but we come to different conclusions, so I’d love to meet her and have a dialogue. Maybe someday!

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about Oxford?

Tamma Carleton: I suppose I was most surprised by how integral the Rhodes community became to my intellectual and social experience. I knew that it would be a large part of my life, but I thought I was going to Oxford to learn from the faculty and colleagues in my department. I didn’t expect the diversity, dynamism and endless energy of other Scholars to be such a powerful source of growth and education for me. 

Rhodes Project: When did you first become hooked on economics?

Tamma Carleton: Econ 101 in my freshman year of college. I went to a very small public high school and barely saw any economics before I went to college. I loved math, but after growing up in a household of artists, economics sounded excruciatingly boring. Then I had this absolutely phenomenal professor for my introductory economics course. He and I are still very close friends, and he completely changed the course of my life. I saw in his class how the quantitative methods and abstract math that I loved could be applied to the development and food systems questions I really cared about. I was a quick convert.

Rhodes Project: If you could change one thing about how economics is broadly understood by the public, what would it be?

Tamma Carleton: I believe that a little bit of economics can be dangerous. Many college or high school students take an introductory economics course, and then write off the discipline after deciding that the assumptions we use in simple models are absurd. Often students leave thinking that economists rely only on obviously inaccurate assumptions about human behavior, and seek a discipline either with more testable hypotheses or a more tangible sense of reality. But two things are wrong with this perception of economics. First, the goal of a model is not to perfectly represent reality. I love the quote from George Box that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” What we do in economics is make the simplest model that can help us understand an aspect of the world we are interested in. Very often, the assumptions we need are empirically violated, but useful knowledge and predictions still arise from the model. I think too many critics of the discipline forget this.  Second, some of the most exciting new work in our discipline, in my opinion, is in behavioral economics, where we are constantly pushing at these traditional assumptions to see where their violation affects the predictions of our models and our ability to analyze the world around us. For example, I’ve worked on social norm formation in an evolutionary game theory framework, removing some of the basic assumptions of traditional economics to try to understand social norms of equity.

Rhodes Project: What do you think is the priority for ensuring sustainable food production, particularly for developing countries, in the context of rapid environmental change?

Tamma Carleton: In the politics of climate change, the focus has been strongly on mitigation, because we’ve still dramatically failed to achieve mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions globally. But resources and attention have, until recently, largely ignored the challenge of climate change adaptation, perhaps because we feared it would draw resources away from mitigation efforts. Food systems, especially those in the developing world, are already facing the consequences of climate change in the form of increased severity and frequency of drought and flood events, with gradually rising temperatures further decreasing yield in many regions. Adaptation is an incredibly pressing priority, and I think a more balanced treatment of both mitigation and adaptation with respect to our food systems and climate change will be very important going forward.

Rhodes Project: What would an ideal day look like?

Tamma Carleton: It starts with a run, hopefully with friends and away from streets. Then a third of my time would be teaching students, a third would be research on my own, and a third collaborating with others on group research. Always ending the day with a home-cooked meal shared with friends and family.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to women hoping to enter the field of economics?

Tamma Carleton: Be confident and assertive. Economics is a very male-dominated field, and for frustrating reasons the quantitative rigor has created assumptions that women will struggle more with the material. In nearly every economics class I’ve taken, men raise their hands and offer their solutions to problem sets far more than women do, but women do not underperform. For many years, I wasn’t the one raising my hand or trusting my answer, and hope that other women entering the field can do so with the confidence it’s taken me years to cultivate.

Rhodes Project: Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?

Tamma Carleton: I’m really caught between whether I want to go into academia or a policy position. I think ideally I’ll end up doing both. In 10 years, I’m hoping to have an academic position in either an economics department, or an environmental interdisciplinary program, but to be spending my time on very applied questions, and collaborating with policymakers in the realm of food and environment.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy?

Tamma Carleton: Being in the outdoors with my husband, Austin. He makes my world full of joy, and our best adventures happen while exploring the beauty of the natural world.

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