Dr. Claudia Williamson Kramer joined the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as the Probasco Chair of Free Enterprise in June 2020, the first woman to hold the position.
The Probasco Chair is the result of an endowment from the estate of Burkett Miller, named in honor of his friend and fellow businessman Scotty Probasco. The aim of the chair is to promote the study of free enterprise at UTC.
“The main mission of the chair is to support efforts to study and engage in conversations around understanding American free enterprise,” said Kramer.
This mission is manifested in a variety of ways on and off campus. At an undergraduate level, she teaches students the values of free enterprise in her Principles of Microeconomics course. To Kramer, these courses are not just about understanding finances or economic trends; instead, understanding economics is about understanding people and their motivations.
Kramer described her view of economics as “a way of thinking, but also descriptive of human behavior. So, another way of thinking about economics is as the study of human action, and when we think of it that way, it sounds much more like a social science. And it is.”
She is passionate about sharing this “economic way of thinking” with more than just students at UTC. As the Director of the Center for Economic Education, she is working to give students throughout the state an earlier start in terms of economic understanding.
“Tennessee does not have a mandate at the state level that each high school student would have to take an economics class, so there is a gap in economic knowledge, or you can think of it as financial literacy. And there’s opportunity and funding through my chair to start getting more economics and financial literacy in middle school and high school,” said Kramer.
Early economics education strikes a chord with Kramer because of her upbringing. “I am a good example because I didn’t know economics even existed in high school. It wasn’t until I took my first economics class at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, and I was just like, ‘Oh, this explains everything.’”
Kramer grew up in an environment of stark socioeconomic differences but said she lacked the framework of economic understanding to comprehend it. Once she discovered the discipline of economics, she became obsessed. Kramer spent her younger years in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a quiet town nestled between the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. She recalled her confusion as a child when she could not understand why life was so different just 2 miles across the river. Kids from neighboring Ohio would mock West Virginians.
These childhood experiences led Kramer to become a lifelong student of economics. “Naturally from that, I was interested in trying to understand wealth creation and why some countries are rich, and some are poor, or why some states have more wealth than others. That led me to want to study economics forever.”
Her passion for economics led her up and down the country. She studied at West Virginia University, New York University and, most recently, was the Drew Allen Endowed Fellow at Mississippi State University. She came to UTC because she saw an opportunity to make a change and impact the community.
“I saw so much potential in Chattanooga both on campus and reaching the community. I felt like I could provide that something substantial and really do a lot here,” Kramer said. “There was a lot of support from faculty, and through the endowment in the chair, I would be able to have an impact.”
She has been working to create that impact. She is even working with names like Bill Haslam and Phil Bredesen (both former Tennessee governors) to enact Tennessee legislation and was recently appointed to the Institute of American Civics board of fellows.
Kramer described the board: “About a year ago, maybe a little bit longer, the legislature in Tennessee mandated that we as educators do a better job of teaching civics. There’s a gap in knowledge, and the legislature is frustrated with that. The way that’s playing out is we’ve created an Institute of American Civics, and part of the mission is to help to educate Tennesseans on American civics.”
The board is intended to fill this gap of knowledge by creating more civics courses at the collegiate and high school levels, as well as addressing economic literacy for the working adult.
And this is only the beginning of her stint as the Probasco Chair. She plans to continue educating the community on the importance of an economic mindset. While she is impacting the community through the Institute of American Civics and the UTC Center for Economic Education, she also continues her own research. She has published more than 50 articles in refereed journals.
In one of her forthcoming articles, “The Importance of Choice: Catfish Man of the Woods Theory of Development,” she draws from a colorful character from her childhood.
“So my dad was an entrepreneur of sorts, we’ll say. West Virginia has stereotypes, and they come from somewhere. My dad was a little bit of a moonshiner, and he wanted really fresh water. I remember as a kid going with him, it was probably a 30-, 40-minute drive to see this guy named Catfish.”
Catfish Gray was an herbalist and folk doctor who became popular during the 70s as an early practitioner of alternative medicine; he even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Her article uses the way in which Catfish chose to live as a lens to view poverty.
“He was happy with, to my understanding, no electricity, no running water,” she explained. “He was by himself. I never saw him with family or anything. He was very much isolated, but he got to choose to live that way.
“The difference between Catfish and most of the millions living in extreme poverty today is that he had the option to choose that life. For others, that decision is made for them. A major benefit of free markets is that it promotes autonomy to choose the life you want to live.”