Tar Heel of the Week

He filters politics out of economics of aging

Staff WriterNovember 2, 2008 

  • BORN: June 24, 1949, in Jackson, Miss.

    FAMILY: Married to Mary Kathryn Clark, who retired eight years ago after 30 years of teaching in Durham Public Schools.

    EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in economics, Millsaps College, 1971; master's in economics, Duke, 1972; Ph.D., economics, Duke University, 1974.

    CAREER: Joined N.C. State in 1975. Professor in the departments of economics and management, innovation and entrepreneurship. Also visiting professor, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, 1993-1994; senior fellow, Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, 1976-present; senior fellow, Center for Demographic Studies, Duke University, 1985-2003.

    HONORS: 2006 winner of the Holladay Medal, highest honor NCSU bestows on a faculty member.

The things that have long occupied Robert L. Clark's mind are on everyone's minds these days.

Clark, 59, an internationally recognized economist at N.C. State University, teaches and studies the economics of aging and pension and retirement policies. He's been on this case a long time, having written papers on the economics of aging since the 1970s.

"I've been very lucky," Clark said in his office at Nelson Hall at NCSU. "I started out my professional career in an area that has gotten more and more attention."

A Mississippi native, Clark has taught at NCSU since 1975. He travels all over the United States -- and to destinations including Australia and Japan --to confer with universities, businesses and governments. The questions Clark has explored are increasingly taking center stage in the debate about governments' ability to manage tax dollars:

How will the U.S. pay for the multitrillion-dollar obligations to people on Social Security and Medicare as the baby boomers age? Closer to home, how will North Carolina meet the $24 billion cost of health care for state retirees?

"The first thing is for the politicians to get together and think seriously about how we are going to solve these problems," Clark told a session at the N.C. Conference on Aging in Greenville on Tuesday.

"I would like to address Social Security and get it off the table, so we can move forward and address Medicare."

Hikes in Wyoming

After childhood and college years in small-town Mississippi, Clark chose Duke for graduate studies and has made his home in North Carolina ever since. Colleagues say he's private, serious-minded and famously efficient. But he has outside interests such as fine Scotch and, Wolfpack ties notwithstanding, the Duke Blue Devils basketball team.

"I enjoy hiking," he said at his office. "I have a house in Wyoming at the base of the Tetons. You can go up one canyon and across to another canyon. That's a spectacular day."

Even while spotting deer, elk and moose on his treks, Clark may use part of the day to mentally sort through problems in economics.

"The university is my life," he said. "I get here at 6:30 in the morning and stay pretty late."

Through alliances in academia, government and businesses, Clark has built a reputation for laying out information and choices instead of dogma.

"I tend not to say too outrageous things," he said.

Art Padilla, who heads NCSU's management, innovation and entrepreneurship department, said Clark's lack of partisanship stems from meticulous research, not excess caution.

"That's what good, careful scholars with international reputations tend to do," he said.

Social Security options

The N.C. Conference on Aging, organized by the UNC Institute on Aging, attracts a diverse group, from college students to social-work professionals and retirees. All appeared rapt as Clark laid out the choices ahead for individuals and for society. The one-time chairman of a national technical panel on Social Security's financial obligations said the program's future options are plain.

"You either raise taxes or you cut benefits," Clark said. "There are lots of ways to do both."

The comment is classic Clark, colleagues say, going behind heated talk to uncover the details of economic policies that closely affect people's lives.

"He is all substance and very little fluff," Padilla said. "He does everything with a lot of grace and a lot of timeliness."

Clark said he's troubled that both sides in this political season have seemed to play fast and loose with the facts in his areas of expertise.

"In my professional life, I try to be very apolitical," he said. "I talk to people on all sides of the issues. I'm much more likely to look at pros and cons."

Both presidential candidates, Clark noted, say they'll tackle the funding problems of federal entitlements by eliminating waste.

"They've been looking for that waste for a long time," he said dryly.

Top-quality answers

His audience at the conference asked questions about health care costs, long-term care insurance and retirement accounts, personal matters that can vary greatly based on actions of governments. Clark's talk, and his answers to questions, presented facts that often suggested courses of action.

"You have to give up consumption today in order to have something in the future," he said of retirement planning.

"We have to think about how we are going to manage our resources over the next 20 to 30 to 40 years. At what age am I going to retire and how much income will I need at that time?"

Recent declines in financial markets mean that many people with retirement money in a 401k and other accounts may move funds into less risky vehicles such as money market accounts or Treasury notes.

Clark didn't say whether that's good or bad, but noted that any such decision should take risk and return into account. And big decisions should come with real-world advice from a disinterested source.

"Who do people trust for information?" he said. "It's a friend, it's a relative, it's somebody you know, instead of seeking high-quality advice. Try to find the information that you need to make these choices."

There's a place for long-term insurance, he said in one answer. But a better option, he added, given possible changes in Medicare and private insurance, might be to have a considerable chunk of retirement money available for all varieties of care.

His audience was getting a rarity -- free and valuable economic wisdom from a scholar whose knowledge on the economics of aging takes him from the halls of Congress to the boardrooms of Japan.

After the session, Victor W. Marshall, head of the UNC Institute on Aging, called Clark one of the three or four most highly regarded economists working in the field of aging.

"Wouldn't you like to have him as your economic adviser?" Marshall added.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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