Research in Action: Perfect World with Research

Economist Strives to Create a Perfect World with Research

by Lauren Kirk

Van Pham is not just an economist. Van Pham is a humanitarian. He wants to save the world and in his own way, he is doing just that.

Pham, assistant professor of Economics, hopes that his work will contribute to the field of Economics in general and the improvement of the standard of living in third-world countries.

“Hopefully I’m adding to the understanding of how the world works and how economies in poor parts of the world can raise their standard of living,” Pham said. “Some development strategies that have come out have done that.”

Pham uses his knowledge of Economics to address important international issues in his work and in the classroom. Pham is impressed with the student interest in international issues at Baylor, especially a concern for the poor and needy. He thinks part of the interest has to do with Baylor’s Christian mission.

“Three-quarters of the world’s people are living in poverty. We live in a very rich country. People at Baylor see the calling to alleviate poverty in the world and share what they have with the rest of the world,” Pham said.

Born in Vietnam, Pham left Saigon with his mother and sisters at the age of 7. He lived in Guam for a year and immigrated to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War. Pham grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and got his undergraduate and master’s degrees at MIT in mechanical engineering. He received his PhD in Economics from Cornell University.

Before starting graduate school, Pham spent a year contemplating his future career while volunteering at a refugee camp in the Philippines, where Pham first encountered the truly destitute. He saw their suffering and terrible living conditions and was motivated to help. He worked at the World Bank, which gives financial and technical assistance to third-world countries. From this experience, he learned that applying his skills to big picture thinking and economics was an appropriate way for him to approach the development problem.

Development, trade and industrialization, technological change, labor markets in third-world countries, corruption and globalization are topics of Pham’s research and publishing. Pham’s topics come from observing the world, seeing emerging issues in the news, going to
conferences and seminars, past research, research literature and data. Pham has also found interacting with others in his profession to be informative and helpful. They talk about and exchange ideas.

Pham’s work emphasizes the interaction between poor countries and the more established, more affluent countries like the U.S., with a focus on the developing countries. “The current economic model followed by developing countries relies heavily on international trade,” Pham said. “If you’re a developing country, you’re not a closed economy.”

Pham’s recent research explores the role of the retail sector in this link between rich and poor countries.

In his paper “Wal-Mart as Catalyst to U.S.-China trade,” Pham quantifies the extent to which growth in trade from China to the U.S. has contributed to the expansion of Wal-Mart; and conversely how the expansion of Wal-Mart has contributed to the growth of this trade.

“Technological change and the lowering of trade barriers have resulted in the growth in industry and in trade over the past few decades. However, the retail chain has amplified these effects and is a key driver of the unprecedented growth in imports as well the proliferation of big-box stores.”

Pham has done work concerning child labor, including his PhD dissertation and the published work “The Economics of Child Labor.” He is currently doing the research “Product Cycles and the Evolution of Child Labor” and “On the Relationship between Trade Liberalization and Child Labor.”

Pham said that child labor has received much more attention as a result of the growth in trade between rich and poor countries. People often want to eliminate child labor by refusing to trade with certain countries, but Pham said this does not help the issue. Realizing that poverty drives child labor, one concludes that reduced trade might actually increase the incidence of child labor.

The industrialization experience of East Asian countries is also a topic that Pham studies. His research tries to distill insights from these countries’ experiences and see if they can be applied to other developing economies. Among his research in this area: the effects of post-crisis reforms in Korea, structural change in the East Asian countries, measurement of technological change, the role of women’s work in the rapidly industrializing countries, and the effect of foreign ownership limits on investment and debt.

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Baylor Business Review, Fall 2007

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