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IU Southeast economics professor balances passion for teaching and politics

Indiana University Southeast economist Eric Schansberg doesn't just teach about the intersection of economics and politics. He practices it.

In 2006 and again in 2008, Schansberg was a candidate for Congress in southern Indiana's 9th District. Running as a Libertarian, he finished far behind Democrat Baron Hill and Republican Mike Sodrel.

Eric Schansberg

Eric Schansberg

Print-Quality Photo

But the experience, he said, gave him first-hand experience in how political and economic theories play out in the rough-and-tumble world of elections -- experience that informs his classroom teaching.

"I can't speak for other fields," he said, "but as someone who teaches economics and political economy, there's a lot of overlap" between experience and teaching.

Sometimes the lessons are a bit painful. For example, he teaches his students about the "theory of rational ignorance" and its application to elections: the idea that it makes sense for voters not to inform themselves about issues, because they would gain less than the effort is worth.

He confronted the theory head-on as a candidate when he spoke to participants in an anti-immigration rally who didn't want to hear about any other issues; and again when, despite all his campaign work, he learned that many voters hadn't heard of him or the Libertarian Party.

"I've taught that theory for years, but to see it and experience it was tough," he said.

Schansberg, 44, was born in Louisville and spent his boyhood in Pittsburgh and upstate New York. As an undergraduate at George Mason University in Virginia, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a professor. He wasn't a serious student -- "I was majoring in Asteroids," he said, referring to the video game, not a branch of astronomy -- and flunked out of school.

But he was good at math, and he had done well in an economics class. When he went back to school, that became his major. "I ran into some teachers who really inspired me," he said. "The public policy angle was intriguing, especially living right outside of D.C."

He completed a Ph.D. in economics at Texas A&M University and joined the IU Southeast faculty in 1992. He is married and has four sons, ages 10, 9, 6 and 4.

Along with his teaching, research and political activity, he keeps up an active blog (, sharing comments and news on politics, religion and popular culture. But teaching is his professional priority.

"I think I'm built to teach," Schansberg said. "That's my passion. I've taught music and math and two-stepping and Bible studies. And I do love economics."

Joe Wert, an associate professor of political science at IU Southeast, said Schansberg kept up his commitment to teaching even while campaigning for office.

"What really impressed me was that he was doing this, and he wasn't on sabbatical," said Wert, who serves as faculty adviser for the IU Southeast College Republicans. "I think he did rather a remarkable job for being a third-party candidate at the same time he was teaching a full load. If anything suffered, it was his candidacy, not his teaching."

Wert said Schansberg is an engaging teacher who has done faculty workshops on using the Socratic method to challenge students to think. "I was very impressed that he even did that in his more quantitative classes," Wert said. "He has spurred me to delve into that approach with my classes."

As a political candidate, Schansberg took pride in trying to bring clear-eyed economic analysis to policy debates and refusing to pander to voters with slogans and wishful thinking.

"Economic analysis takes you to a more rigorous understanding of what is taking place out there in the market," he said. "George Stigler said economists are 'pourers of cold water' on proposals for government activism. I think that's a good description."

But Schansberg's positions are also influenced by his Christian faith, which says it's important to protect the powerless. While Democrats and Republicans debated income tax cuts for the rich, Schansberg called for cutting payroll taxes, which fall disproportionately on the working poor.

"As a Christian, the economic justice piece is important to me," he said.

Schansberg said he ran for office thinking he might actually win, but he got only 4.5 percent of the vote in 2006 and 3.8 percent last year. "I thought it would take a second-tier miracle for me to win," he said. "As it turned out, I think it was more a first-tier miracle."

And even if he thinks of the election as one big economics classroom, Schansberg isn't sure running again would be rational.

"Was I shouting into a wind tunnel," he wondered, "or did I change people's minds?"