Lee Huskey is a storyteller by nature and although it may not seem that economics and storytelling intertwine, he maps out how the two have woven their paths throughout the decades shaping his life and the state he has come to love.
The veteran UAA economics professor’s story begins in his native Missouri. He attended the University of Missouri thinking he was going to be a journalist, but like most young people, his plans changed, and after his first economics class, he was hooked.
“I like the crispness of the study,” says Lee.
Lee first came to Alaska in 1971 with the U.S. Army. He was immediately drawn to the state’s vast beauty and solitude and took advantage of the good hiking and camping. After his stint in the Army, Lee returned to the Lower 48 and earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in economics from the University of Washington in St. Louis.
“People now wouldn’t believe this, but I moved into economics because I was good at math,” says Lee with a laugh. Huskey was in college during the late ’60s and early ’70s, when there was a lot of upheaval in our country over social injustice and the Vietnam War. He felt, like many young adults who joined the social movement, the need to contribute to the social good. Economics seemed to be the right tool for the job.
“To me economics is always common sense,” Lee says. “But the gift of economics is what you can say about what might happen.” He goes on to explain that the study of economics is a social science that tells the stories of people.
“I’m kind of a dinosaur because I like to talk. I’m a lecturer; I like to tell stories,” says Lee of his teaching style in the classroom. “My grandpa was a big storyteller, my dad was a storyteller. I just grew up in that environment. It just took me some time to realize that it’s an important tool for teaching.”
Whether it’s teaching in the classroom, inspiring his students through storytelling or out in the field on a research project, Lee believes stories help ground the principles taught in the classroom. For students, they put into context the economic theories and ideas that might otherwise seem abstract and vague.
“I think it’s easier to remember stuff when it’s in the structure of a story,” says Lee, describing a professor and mentor who used to tell stories in the classroom when he was a student. “He would go off on these tangents and you would think, ‘what the heck?’ But during a test you would remember and the story helped color the concept.”
His work and storytelling abilities in the last five years have helped him and his colleagues illustrate the history and patterns of the people of the north. Collaborating with fellow UAA College of Business and Public Policy Economic professors, as well as other professionals in his field, Lee and his group explored the theories of why people live in the far north and their migration patterns. Those patterns as well as cities and how people collect in particular regions of the world have always interested him and working on this project, he says, was one of the highlights of his career.
“When I first came out of grad school, I was really interested in cities,” he says. “But, when you live in the north you quickly understand there’s something special about people living here.”
His interest in the north and the relationship between cities, towns, villages and people grew from his experience living in Anchorage. Lee says that even Anchorage, despite growing into somewhat of a metropolis—at least by Alaska standards—is still somewhat of an anomaly.
“Anchorage is relatively unique because it’s one of the only big cities this far north,” says Lee. Apart for Russia, most countries of the circumpolar north are absent of large urban cities. Alaska is a bit of an exception.
“When I first came up here in the Army, most TV shows would be three weeks late and football games you’d get a week late. I think in ’74 they started flying the national news up on tape,” Lee says illustrating his point. “You would get Walter Cronkite at 10:30 instead of 6:30.”
He goes on to explain that even in Anchorage, economics and history have intertwined and woven the story of what was a little boomtown on the edge of wilderness to the expanded modern city it is now. He says people’s patterns of movement—their migration habits—tell the story. He uses Anchorage’s Hillside region as an example.
“When we first moved here, people moved to the Hillside because it was cheap and you could build a house,” Lee says. Now if you head south toward the Chugach, the Hillside is dotted with multi-million dollar homes.
Each example of migration within our state, within Anchorage, even the growth at UAA, brings to life our state’s colorful history. Economics, according to Lee, is just one of the ways people can decipher our story and help make predictions about Alaska’s future.
“Stories aren’t just stories, life happens. The science is kind of the middle, ” Lee says. “Economics makes a prediction from the story and although we tend to focus on the science part of it, to put it into context, you gotta use a story.”