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Talking with… Rev. Paul McNelis, SJ

Interviews | Nov 06, 2019 |

Each “Talking With…” feature helps you learn about a different Gabelli School faculty member, administrator, or staff member. This week, we’re speaking with Rev. Paul McNelis, SJ, Robert Bendheim chair, economic and financial policy, and professor of finance and business economics at the Gabelli School of Business – he is also a Jesuit priest. 

How does theology, economics, and finance work together?

One of the things people always ask me is, “What’s a clergyman doing in a field like this?”

I am following in the footsteps in the field of economics and also empirical economics of two well-known figures in this field. One is Adam Smith, a Presbyterian clergyman, moral theologian and the founder of modern-day economics. When Smith talks about self-interest and the invisible hand­­ — taking actions in one’s own self-interest — he presumes that people have a well-defined sense of morality.

Economics and Finance get into trouble when we forget they are tightly bound and linked to morality. We saw this in the recent financial crisis — very greedy and needless risk-taking. I think that’s one of the important things that we have to remember, this tight link that I like to remind students of.

The other clergyman who is influential, is an Anglican Clergyman, Thomas Bayes. When I teach econometrics and statistics, I am very much what they call a “Bayesian,” meaning we have to bring priors to data; we don’t crank out numbers.

Take the example of correlations. I used to root for the Yankees, but I am also a Democrat. And I saw for many years there was this correlation whenever the American League won in the World Series the Republicans won. And when the National League won, the Democrats won. I was conflicted. Although I was rooting for the Yankees, did that mean the Republicans would win the next Presidential election?

If you look at the data, you will see this high correlation, so you have to understand that data has to be filtered by certain priors in understanding that the world series has nothing to do with the Presidential election even though statistically it might be highly correlated.

You have focused your concentration on problems of adjustment and financial liberalization in Latin America and Asia. Why these areas?

These regions fascinate me because many of these countries were long isolated and they suddenly changed from high levels of protection and high tariffs to openness to trade. Suddenly, as we saw in Asia, the country is open to foreign investment when there is no regulation on banks. 

I want to learn more about India. India has gone slow on foreign investment. Their development strategy has been investing in small and medium-sized enterprises growing slowly rather than these large scale foreign investors coming in and developing the industries. The idea of India has been almost to home-grow small and medium enterprises and then gradually lead to export success. 

What do you enjoy the most about teaching at the Gabelli School of Business?

What I like best about my ministry at Fordham is the recurring experience of meeting new students with diverse backgrounds each term, and accepting the challenge to find new and effective ways to help them learn. I also appreciate the intellectual drive of my colleagues, which keeps me active and engaged in research. 

Fun Questions

Favorite Movies:
Chariots of Fire, I’ve seen it in many languages.  The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Favorite Hobbies:
Cooking chili con carne and pot roast. Going to museums.

Favorite Quote: 
“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” 
-George Box, Professor of Statistics, University of Wisconsin.   

Favorite Books: 
In addition to international espionage or mysteries (Barry Eisler, Tom Clancy, and Lee Child), I favor biographies of leaders (Chernov’s biographies of Hamilton and Grant).  I eagerly await the last installment of Robert Caro’s multi-volume of Lyndon Johnson, covering the years I came of age as an adult. And, a well-written life of a saint, such as The Hidden Face, by Ida Friederike Goerres.

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