Todd Hirsch: Alberta's Economic Philosopher

Alumni Honour Award recipient believes Corporate Canada has a lot to learn from the arts community

Donna McKinnon - 11 September 2015

As we look forward to Alumni Weekend (Sept 24-27, 2015), the Faculty of Arts is proud to share the stories of our inspiring alumni. The Faculty of Arts hits a key milestone this year with 50,000 alumni contributing in all areas of life worldwide. Watch for more in the coming days.

We encourage all Arts grads to proudly identify as #1of50K on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all year long!

Todd Hirsch ('89 BA Honours) is often referred to as an economic philosopher, an unlikely designation in a field of study that deals largely with numbers. But as chief economist for ATB Financial, columnist with the Globe and Mail and a passionate defender of the Arts, Hirsch is uniquely qualified to evaluate the narrative behind the figures.

According to Hirsch, it's not just about compiling information - it's about critical thinking. "As in many academic and professional fields, economics can fall victim to dogma and unchallenged answers," he says. "But as a social science, economics is so open-ended. WHY do we want economic diversification in Alberta? HOW will we know when our economy is operating at its best? There are so many moving parts to an economy that simple, pat answers don't suffice. Sometimes we don't even have the right questions. We need to dig deeper, to be philosophic, about what it is we are trying to answer."

At the core of Hirsch's philosophy is the belief that the arts community is not antithetical to economics, but instead is a potential partner whose particular set of skills has been too often overlooked by Corporate Canada. Hirsch goes as far as calling out corporations for their passive sponsorship of the arts, suggesting that they would greatly benefit by fostering genuine relationships instead of simply giving money. "Forget the silly logo on the back of the program or giving free tickets to performances in exchange for corporate financial gifts," he says. "What should be offered is a chance for corporate employees to work alongside the artists, writers, dancers and performers to see how they approach problem solving. Every one of us - the tax lawyers and the painters, the engineers and the fashion designers - are trying to solve problems in our everyday work. Taking those abilities to solve problems and see the world as a set of complicated shades of colour will help all industries become better."

Possessing both a BA from the U of A and an MA from the University of Calgary, as well as a fulfilling a 10-year stint as an economics lecturer at the University of Calgary, it is no surprise that Hirsch holds the liberal arts degree in high esteem - not necessarily as a means to an end (i.e. a job), but as the foundation of an able and curious mind. "If we are doing a good job as educators, and if students are doing their job as learners, what should result from an arts degree is a society of complex thinkers and problem solvers," he says. "A liberal arts degree is intended to teach you how to absorb complex information and make reasoned arguments. It is, quite simply, intended to teach you how to learn. Those are skills that you'll use in any field of work."

This recipient of a U of A Alumni Honour Award is equally passionate about outreach. As a top economics communicator, Hirsch gives over 150 presentations each year to a diverse range of audiences, from high school students to politicians, telling the story of Alberta and Canada's economy, and championing the role of creativity in economic renewal and innovation. Alongside numerous volunteer activities, Hirsch has held positions with the Canada West Foundation, Canadian Pacific Railway and the Bank of Canada. He is currently the board chair for the Calgary Arts Academy, an arts-immersion school that uses creativity to teach the Alberta curriculum, and he chairs the Premier's Council on Culture along with vice-chair Todd Babiak. He is also co-author of the book The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline. In 2012, the federal government honoured Hirsch for his achievements in the community with the Diamond Jubilee Medal.

"There is so much to be learned by exposing yourself to other systems of critical thinking and problem solving," says Hirsch. "Open your mind, and never, ever, allow yourself to think you've wasted your time in university getting a liberal arts degree. It will go much further than you're able to see at the moment."