Q&A: Dr Manfredi La Manna

Originally published in Issue IV of the St Andrews Economist

Dr Manfredi La Manna is a reader at the St Andrews University School of Economics & Finance. The following interview was conducted by Renzo Forastiero and Sanjana Sha. 

SAE: Who inspired you?

La Manna: After my first degree [in Italy], I came to the London School of Economics, and was lucky to be taught by George Akerlof and Mervyn King. My biggest inspiration, however, was [Nobel Prize winner] Amartya Sen, who was my teacher and is my ideal as an economist.  His first book was about collective choice, and the way economics can be applied to issues such as equality and human rights.

SAE: How did you end up in St Andrews?

La Manna: The academic markets in the UK and US are the most meritocratic in the world. The specific reason I came to St Andrews was because John Beath, head of the department at that time, had a particular interest in the economics of R&D, which happened to be my area, and had convinced the then Principal to make a strategic investment in the Economics department, and thus there was a large intake of staff. Additionally, St Andrews is a great town to live in.

SAE: What is your biggest challenge with students?

La Manna: My biggest challenge is to deal with the perception that economics is difficult. Why is it that we can solve complex differential equations and problems without even knowing what they are? Economics is not difficult, but is perceived as so, thus my first challenge is to disabuse students of that idea.

I know exactly what students would like, and I could choose a textbook they like, follow it, and carry on from what they have already done in school. But I am old fashioned; I tend not to use textbooks at all. I try to develop something that is very difficult to get from a textbook – economics as a way of thinking. The module feedback form asks: ‘What is the worst feature of the module’? My favourite answer was: ‘The way I was forced to think’.  In a way it is sad, but I find that extremely complimentary, so I would say my second challenge would be living with being unpopular.

I do note that my students’ results tend to be just as good as lecturers who choose to follow a textbook. Moreover, I recently talked to a student who said he still has ‘nightmares’ about my lectures five years later, although my modules helped him land a plum merchant banking job. I call this a mark of success.

SAE: Do you filter?

La Manna: Absolutely not. Maybe because of my sense of humour, a lot of people don’t get me. I have no wish whatsoever to filter.

SAE: What is the most difficult part of your job?

La Manna: I would be delighted if everyone did well. The most difficult part of this job is students who don’t get into honours. I say to students: ‘Look at the evidence. A lot of you will fail’.  That is not saying, ‘I will ensure that you fail’. There is a mis-apprehension that we mark to a curve so that 5 or 10 percent will fail. We do not do that.

In most cases, it is a failure of the system. In the beginning, students are not prepared from first year, but after students complete my module, the questions look easy. That is a mark of success.

If you are not serious about taking economics, my module is not a good way to get 20 credits. It requires commitment; it is an investment. Some students feel they want to do economics based on what they’ve done in school and first year – that may not be a good enough reason.

SAE: Do you have any sports or hobbies?

La Manna: I have always played football and tennis. I don’t follow them commercially as I would rather play them. If I recover, I will play in the upcoming staff-student football match.

SAE: We have heard about your chutney farm. Tell us about how you got into the business.

La Manna: The application was in my name for legal reasons, but it was my wife’s project. The experience taught me about economics and planning. There is no rationality, no perception of costs and benefits in the planning rules. It is a completely bureaucratic process.

For some reason, this particular application had a life of its own and went to the highest planning court in Fife. I attended the meeting. There were two applications: One was the abandoned Hyundai Plant in Dunfermline, which was being reviewed for remodeling into a modern housing estate and was one of the biggest development decisions Fife Council would make this decade; the other was my farm. One project was discussed for 10 minutes, the other for 50. Any guesses?

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