History of Economics Playground

A blog by young and restless (and good looking) historians of economics

Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

We are moving the playground – come join us

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Some time ago we got an e-mail from the guys at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) asking if we were interested in shifting our playground in their direction?  Well, as of Sunday we have moved our swings and slides to the brand new ineteconomics.org/blog/playground.

New shiny home, same Kids

So what does that mean? First off we intend to continue in the same vein and in keeping content control we think not much is changing… As usual, new young and restless (and good looking) historians will join as others move on, so the only change is if you are using RSS feeds, then you will need to update it. Other than that, it’s the same playground – only shinier.

OK, so it’s a lot shinier. In April – as you’ll know – they agreed to ship us to the INET conference, and our shiny badges means we  get interviews with people who we would not otherwise bump into. We’ve also been given a video editor who is working on the interview films which will be ready soon! Then they asked if we would be interested in covering the history related INET grants and presentations, meaning travel money and hopefully interesting blog posts. Reality is that we’d be reading this stuff anyway, but somehow INET agreed to fund our trips – I fear they missed our reservation price of zero. That said, we may have missed their reservation price too, as part of the deal includes a $25,000 grant to pay for research, travel and other work related to the blog and history, so expect more archival stories and maybe even a comic. All-in-all, we think this is a great opportunity, and if it all goes haywire, we’ll always have this spot.

So on behalf of everyone, I hope you like where we are taking this, and that you’ll join us. I noticed that Pedro and Yann have already started posting over on ineteconomics.org/blog/playground, so please, come over and play.

Written by Benjamin

21 June 2011 at 10:09 pm

INET-BW: Kindleberger, a new K-hero?

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I was not in Bretton Woods this week. I followed the event throught the videos posted on the INET website and the exhilarating and exhausting experience of Benjamin, Floris and Tiago. And I found that something in the BW whisper curiously echoes my current interests.

Tiago reports abundant mentions to Keynes during the sessions. The old pipe gives the sweetest smoke, my google says the Irish say (The French would favor a wine analogy, I guess). But a new K-hero also seems to be emerging. From Larry Summers’s confession that the knowledge he found most useful in the face of the crisis was found in the “writings of Bagehot, Minsky, Kindleberger, and Eichengreen,” to Rogoff’s recollection that he was unengaged by Kindleberger’s teaching, from DeLong‘s ( repeated) mention of Kindleberger’s vision of financial crises, one triggered by one post’s headline by Mark Thoma, Kindleberger seem to be on every mouth at the INET conference. From the other side of the Atlantic, I’m thus left wondering to what extent what looks like a primary attempt to canonize the MIT economist derives from his long, exhaustive, and timely experience of The World in Depression, 1929-1939, Manias, panics and crashes, foreign trade, exchange rates, money matters and international economics at large (see his autobiography for more information, and take memories with caution, as always.) Or maybe his fame is also rooted in his his very idiosyncratic method, one he labelled “historical economics.” Historical economics was however left for dead in the wake of the generalization of the MIT-style economics Kindleberger’s colleagues spread and the rise of new economics history and cliometrics. But, in these times of tensions and challenges, it may look fashionable again.

Or maybe the rise of a new K-hero is a mere artifact of my interest in economics at MIT. After working at the NY Fed and architecting the Marshall Plan, Kindleberger was recruited in 1948 at the department of economics and social sciences at MIT by those few economists (including statistician Harold Freeman, chair Ralph Freeman, industrial economist Rupert McLaurin, and Samuelson) who set to turn the hitherto small service department of an engineering school into an elite department. He remained there until his last lectures in 1981 (?) and became a pillar of the department. How he fitted into in a community initially made up of economists, psychologists, sociologists and political scientists, which by the early sixties, had become the sanctuary of Samuelson and Solow’s “new economics” however remained a mystery to me. Last december, I intended to dig into the subject, but I did not have enough time to even lift the lid of his first archive box. My interest in Kindelberger subsequently wained because of the lack of material. I rather concentrated on the Samuelsons, Solows, Fishers, Diamonds and Foleys, whose then peculiar educational vision had brought MIT to the top of university rankings in the mid-sixties. For education, I soon discovered, was central to the rise of both economics at MIT and MIT economics. A viewpoint which put the visionary Solow and his dizzying list of PhD students at the center of my story (his students in the years 1966 and 1967 only included George Akerlof, Robert Gordon, Robert Hall, William Nordhaus, Eytan Sheshinski, Joseph Stiglitz, and Martin Weitzman).

Accordingly, the recent formal identification of Solow as the leading MIT graduate supervisor in the 50s to 70s (56 students) did not came as a revelation. More surprising was the endurance and importance of the role played by Kindleberger, ranking second. In that period, he supervised 48 graduate students, including Robert Mundell (PhD 56), Peter Temin (PhD 64), and Jagdish Bhagwati (PhD 67). Kindleberger taught international economics for a lifetime, and after the recruitment of Peter Temin in 1967, he opened a course in economic history with his former student. The INET whisper is another reminder that, in the dark basement of an East Coast University Library, dusty boxes await to be be open. And I’m curious to know whether Benjamin, Floris and Tiago also noted a crystallization over Kindleberger, or over any other hero of the past besides Keynes?

Written by Beatrice

11 April 2011 at 12:05 am

Posted in Biographies, Events

@INET-BW: Who’s the iNETiest of them all?

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There are a lot of universities represented here, but who are the most likely candidates for participation and who might one expect INET to be interested in? I don’t have anything to do with INET monetas, but know that so far they have partnered with the LSE in London and Oxford University and I presume they are looking for other friends and partners in crime. Using the participant list and some nimble excel sheets, it turns out that the American North East is well represented (to be expected), and there are definetly a top ten (well, nine) coming out for new thinking:

  TOTAL Student Attendee Grantee inet board
Harvard 7 2 5 0 0
Boston 6 2 3 1 0
Columbia 6 1 3 2 0
New School 5 1 2 1 1
Balsilie int’l affairs 5 4 1 0 0
Berkeley 4 1 2 0 1
U. Mass (Amherst) 4 1 2 1 0
Central European U. 3 0 3 0 0
McGill 3 2 1 0 0

 

So it’s the local schools first, with Harvard and Boston topping, but Columbia, New School and Balsilie have a very strong presence here, with students and faculty showing up. So perhaps some potential partners are to be found in this list, it seems full of good candidates both for new economic thinking and new ideas. As for INET’s current partners, they find themselves in the ‘also rans’ with 2 representatives each. Although, you can’t say they aren’t in good company: Bard, Cambridge, Carleton, Duke, Freie (Berlin), LSE, MIT, New South Wales (Sydney), NYU, Oxford, Roosevelt, Santa Fe Inst, Stanford, UCL & UCLA.

Written by Benjamin

10 April 2011 at 8:46 pm

@INET-BW: Of history repeating…

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The Bretton Woods conference has a protean character. Talk in the corridors asks “what is it?” Some in the press (lots of press here) believe that deals are being made, the attendance of heavy hitters leads some to believe that consultations and strategies are being outlined for world government (Summers, Stiglitz, Brown, and yesterday Volcker arrived to close the event). The Tea Party protesters agree on the form if not the substance. The academics take seriously the title of the meeting “Crisis and Renewal: International Political Economy at the Crossroads” and its brief:

The 1944 conference was, famously, largely an Anglo-American affair, whereas today’s reconstruction must engage the larger European Union, as well as the emerging economies of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. In the years since the 1944 conference, the globalization of production, trade, and especially finance, has transformed our economy, but has not yet transformed our system of regulation or our tools of policy intervention. Indeed, our very habits of thought and speech lag behind the realities that we desperately need to think and speak about.

The program announces a desire to think and talk big, policy and reform for the planet, and the venue, Mount Washington Resort, suggests an even grander vision of what might be achieved. There is abundant mentions to Keynes (we started counting but then gave up). Some of the Keynesian referencing is thoughtful and substantive, but most of the order of the great moral example offered by the great Englishman, as Skidelsky once wrote in “Exemplary Lives” (you can find it in Times Literary Supplement 75 (19):1250)). INET appears sincere in its desire to bring history into the discussion of a crisis of economics, they are funding programs to foster the teaching of the subject, and a grant program to pursue its research, but in these meetings, history was relegated to the dinner party anecdote and to a construction of identity and legitimation. This is a media, visual, video, audio, blogging event (in which I am participating), to project the brand of the Institute and associate it with a glorious past, and the prestige of great past thinkers.

I suffer from an embarrassing Pavlovian conditioning, every time I hear the words “history repeats”, I blurt out Marx (Karl not Groucho):

Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.”

Here we start at 7 am, and dinner talks go past 10 pm. Lack of sleep and high altitude are pressing me to a brutish mood, a Hunter Thompson fiendishness, fear and loathing state of mind. And I start howling for tragedy.

I don’t much mind the spectacle particularly when it is giving me access to folks that would otherwise never have spoken to us were we not wearing a “Staff” badge. I got a +30 min video interview with Brad DeLong, and I am in the shot. The real test of these meetings for me, and for those that want to see an effort at changing economics, was yesterday’s session by the Teaching Task Force. Two committees reported on INET proposals for reform of the economics curriculum. The UK group under the influence of Skidelsky parroted his calls for economic history. Not much progress in a year, he said the same at the Cambridge meeting and earlier still. I was left wondering what Skidelsky sees as economic history, and what benefits one might extract, all is left floating in self evident confidence. The US group had a better worked out vision, setting out plans to use INET online resources to provide materials to reach classrooms (the impact issue module). However, the US group’s suggestion of anthologies of texts, as alternative to textbooks, seems a weak attack on the textbook market. I was wondering if it was an appeal to the canon, that has crashed and burned in Literature and will never have a chance in Economics. It is likely that the teaching reform committee could not agree, to argue for substantive change you need to agree that economics needs changing, and that consensus is skidding down the slopes.

The weight of the 1920s decorated rooms, and the grey presence of so many headliners of the economics profession (which we are making the most of with the interviewing) is creating great confusion about what is “new” in New Economic Thinking. One line is nostalgia and it began with the opening session when Rogoff recalled with regret and humor how as a young man he was unengaged by C. Kindleberger’s teachings. (Its ok now, he recovered the notes.) Another is memory, that the models of past authors should not be so easily forgotten. But the strongest line is that we need more economic history in curricula and in public debate, and the example to follow is… Rogoff and Reinhardt’s This Time is Different? Not wanting to question their achievement, the book affords only the most weak defenses of historical scholarship, where time is flattened into a tractable dataset and agency and institution are dismissed by the law of great numbers. More worryingly this take on history does not question the place of the economist in the historical scene (that sociology thing again). In a trope that I saw repeated thrice, it was said that economics is at a stage where a Copernican revolution has occurred but one needs still to use Ptolomeic cosmology for a few decades more, for policy advice (the argument without celestial spheres has been made before the crisis, in 2006, in G. Mankiw’s “Economist as Engineer” piece to the JEP).

None of this is new, and worse still, none of it is very critical. New Economic Thinking is hard to win. For nearly a century philanthropic money tried to steer economics into interdisciplinarity and social and historical consciousness, in the 1970s they gave up (Floris will disagree, but despite the cases of behavioral economics I think the argument holds). And because change is so hard, there is a danger that INET gives up, and becomes a left of center think tank to argue the policy wars. The task of producing knowledge against the grain requires imagination. I would have wished to see the big headliners back to back with some new ideas from INET grantee portfolio. I would have wished more collaborative work and less staging speeching. I would have wished more time for debate and critique. I would have wished less farce and more tragedy.

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Written by Tiago

10 April 2011 at 7:57 pm

@INET-BW: Interview with Barry Eichengreen, any requests?

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We have been talking and video interviewing people at the conference, and we’ve narrowed down a small list of questions which we try to build on and have so far talked to Kenneth Rogoff, Brad DeLong, Ha-Joon Chang, Stephen Ziliak, Philippe Aghion, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Barry Eichengreen and tomorrow we start with James Galbraith. Barry was really good about giving us 10 minutes after four solid hours of interviews, so we skipped the camera and did it old school while stretching our legs in direction of the drinks reception. In that spirit I thought I would share the team questions and an initial draft (hey, it’s late) of Barry’s answers. Any suggestions for whom we need to grab tomorrow or Monday?

How has your teaching changed following the 2008 crisis – have you used history more?
“I don’t so much teach history, as I do history. History has a certain utility for economists and as such it is a long existing discipline! But I teach it differently to undergraduates and postgraduates. For the former I try to give an integrated picture of the ‘world economy in the 20th century’ (which is also the title of the course). For the graduate students it is more methodology and exposing them to empirical controversies.

Which work in economics the most impressed you?”
“I would have to be less sleep deprived than I am to fully answer that question [he came in from the west coast 24 hours ago –Ben], but as I can see O’Rourke there, I would point to his book with Findlay,  Power and Plenty as a fine piece of work. Its overview and synthesis is real progress in Economic History.

How do you define progress in Economics?
“There is no single answer to this, but I worry that while we have been good at exporting our models to other social sciences, we have not been very successful on the imports front. So I think inter-disciplinarity is a key, which is why I have taken a masters degree in History and acquired a Political Science appointment.

How do you change economics?
The key is in training the next generation. There has been a disappointment I think due to the lack of radicalism after what happened in 2008, but I am not that surprised because for these things to change you need a generational change. While institutions and history may be of interest to students, senior staff members are unlikely to change what they have been doing for a very long time. But you need to train people, encourage top departments to take them and then they will be this new generation.

Written by Benjamin

10 April 2011 at 6:52 am

@INET-BW: Anglo-Saxons versus the Germans

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For one and a half days we had Anglo-Saxons talking finance and financial crisis: Keynesian stimuli, surplus countries bashing, drawing China in, and bullying of the Euro area and in particular Germany’s role in it. If there was one message, it was that it is all about (the politics) of money. So I was curious to hear what the first German speaker, Dalia Marin from the University of Munich would argue: would she defend Germany against the Anglo-Saxon condescencion? Would she defend the cause of the surplus countries? No, she talked about firms, trade and increasing firm production (example: cars). Will the twain ever meet?

Written by Floris

9 April 2011 at 9:38 pm

Posted in Economics, Events

@INET-BW: Careers

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Guess who came for lunch? Gordon Brown. He just strolled in, was in the neighborhood, with the K-9s and the barrel chested security detail. And he is a terrific speaker!

Before I say anything of his message, and because the messenger was a big portion of the message, I was left wondering about careers. It used to be that a politician out of office would travel some (any) desert and return for another fight, another cycle, Churchill and Nixon come to mind. Politicians these days, such as GW Bush, go out of office and into celebrity: they write a book, they go on speaking tours.

Gordon Brown has a book, and he did not forget mentioning it. But he appears to inch towards a different career prospect, other than inspirational speaker: from national statesman he is ready to become a world statesman (Tony Blair is trying that too). The vision offered to the digesting masses was of a world unbalanced by a epoch making transformation, where the West will be dwarfed by the ascending middle class of the South and the East (worryingly not Africa) remaking financial and value flows. His proposal is to continue and conclude what he began but was myopically interrupted by democracy in May 2010: a new set of global agreements that regulate debt and currency adjustments but that also assures continued growth and prosperity for the new world order that is coming on the horizon. …. a new Bretton Woods.

The punchline was pleasant and appropriately sweet: an invitation to the imagination of scholars, with a bit of poetry as fits British eloquence, to envisage the worlds that are coming. We need economic fiction?

Written by Tiago

9 April 2011 at 7:05 pm

Posted in Events, Politics

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@INET-BW: Revolutionaries at INET, well sort of…

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Typical anti-capitalist liberals... What do you mean you're Tea-Partyer's?!?

Security is tight here, I mean passport checks in the bus coming in, a K-9 unit, police presence, big private security guys with ear-buds and lapels roaming the corridors, and big signs on everyone’s chest to show that they belong. And for the first time in my life I’ve been picketed. Well, ten guys with placards, but when I went to take a picture and talk to them, they hadn’t yet showed up today. Disappointing as it was already 11am – and we were on-site at 7.15.  So who are these people. Rumours suggest that they are not your usual anti-capitalists (despite their lone sign that was left behind), but they are tea-partyers.

I will try and run out during lunch (it’s a bit of a walk from here to the entrance) and see if I can’t catch them for a chat about their wants and needs. Hey, we are supposed to be rowing bloggers and this is too good to miss. Also, I am a bit baffled about this.

In the meantime, Tiago and Floris interviewed Akerlof (v. cool I am told), Richard Koo (Nomura Research Institute) just gave a talk about what we can learn from Japan. Yes learn from Japan. His slides are really worth looking at as they tell a story of how government can step in, and how money supply changes can occur without affecting the underlying economy. Duncan Foley (paper) preceded him to point out that if you net out the sectors where the national accounts impute Value Added, then the picture of the 2000 and 2008 recessions look a lot worse (and similar) than we may have thought. Oh, and on Q4 2010 figures, the US is looking very double dippish…

Written by Benjamin

9 April 2011 at 3:23 pm

@INET-BW: Clear skies with a chance of economics

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For the next three days, a few of us are blogging the Institute of New Economic Thinking’s Bretton Woods Conference. It is an unusual event, as unusual as the Institute’s patron, George Soros, who somehow manages to be a player in politics, finance and culture on both shores of the Atlantic. A number of principals are walking about Mount Washington: policy makers (Summers and Sachs will drop by), media (Wolf and Tett from the FT, Cassidy from the New Yorker), bloggers (Huffington in on the guest list) and plenty of economists.

Historians are here too. (Skidelsky, Keynes’s biographer is sitting in front of me.) One of INET’s core business is to foster the teaching and the research into economic history and the history of economics. I am sure this will scramble some folk’s disciplinary grids, of who fits where, and the dangers of being an historian and analyst without due distance to one’s subject, that trouble of being too “embedded”. That is why I am taking this assignment more as the anthropologist (as I imagine them) than as the colleague. As in a field assignment I come prepared with my trusted Marantz recorder, a set of agreed questions that i discussed with colleagues in the course of the last week, and a set of empty notebooks to be filled. I also thought of wearing my khakis to make the transformation complete, but upon visiting weather.com I discovered it was going to be cloudy and cold, and there is still snow on the hillsides.

(Ben and Floris will likely take this experience differently, I am looking forward to some contrast)

Written by Tiago

8 April 2011 at 8:34 pm

HSS 2010 – Lost in the supermarket

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HSS meetingThis is not only a metaphor. The History of Science Society’s 2010 annual meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency in Montreal and the hotel is indeed located in a mall!

Because our methods and interests are increasingly evolving toward those of the history of science, it seems logical to want to get closer to the HSS community as well. Problem is: is there such a community? And if so, can we really get the gist of it only by attending a few sessions more-or-less randomly? Apparently not. Though I enjoyed some nice presentations such as David Kaiser on the role of hippies in drawing cohorts of students to physics departments and was fascinated by the new publications on the University of Chicago Press’ stand, I was mostly unable to identify new trends in research. Some attendants do archival work of some kind, some other visit museums and others curate exhibitions. While classic intellectual history and attempts at reinterpreting the canonical literature are still going strong, some others are making movies and investigate the more cultural aspects of science. In front of this methodological bonfire, it is difficult to have an accurate vision of what History of Science is in 2010. One meaningful anecdote is that I unexpectedly met Jonathan, a friend I had not seen for a long time. I knew Jonathan as an American writer, musician and poet living in Paris. I thought he was undertaking work in literary criticism. I knew his interest had moved toward the philosophy of science – well, honestly I had forgotten this information – but I would not have imagined myself attending his presentation at the HSS meeting – I have to add here that it was a joint HSS/PSA (Philosophy of Science Association) meeting but Jonathan’s session, though dealing with philosophical aspects, was really part of the HSS part of the event. My failure in identifying my friend as a member of the community I am targeting says much about the diversity of styles that co-existed there.

Another remark on the meeting: I realized looking at the book of abstracts that unlike HET meetings, the HSS meeting mostly draws North-American and British researchers. While the Dutch and the Germans are well represented, the French and the Italians, who are attending the ESHET and HES meetings en masse, are  barely visible at the HSS.

Last but not least, another contributor to this blog was there (as well as a former one), so he may also have something to say.

Brad DeLong to Talk on the History of Macroeconomics

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I guess more people received the same email as me… But in any case, Richard H. Steckel, a professor of economics at the Ohio State University, informed me that J. Bradford DeLong, a professor of economics at U.C. Berkeley, a macroeconomist, economic historian and active blogger

will speak on Monday Nov. 8 at 3:30 (EST) on “Macroeconomics in Historical Perspective.” The links for the streaming event are given below.  …  In case you are unable to view the live event, we plan to archive the seminar on the Economics Department web page at Ohio State.

Real Producer: http://streaming.osu.edu/live1.htm
Windows Media: mms://streaming1.osu.edu/wmtencoder/live1.wmv

So, everybody is invited to see what he will discuss about the history of macroeconomics. In case you want to listen him talk on his education and on “Economics, Politics, and Public Discourse,” there is the following 2007 Youtube video:

Written by Pedro

5 November 2010 at 8:45 pm

Video killed the radio star

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One of the speakers was my PhD supervisor, with all that baggage of closeness and distance. Another was my colleague for two years in Amsterdam. Another still, is my colleague right now at Duke. The moderator is a fellow contributor to this blog, and beyond professional conspiracies, a friend. Why then did I watch the video of the Mini-Symposium on the History of Postwar Economics. What could I possibly have excepted to see?

I showed restraint, watching only the roundtable session. The ground covered in the discussion was familiar, not all, but most of it. So I looked at nothing radically new, but I was seeing/listening differently. I had become a spectator. Whenever I am with Mary, Marcel, Roy, or Pedro, I participate, engage, respond, probe, embarrass myself. But at the remove of a video streamed into my living room, locked doors, and tea cup in hand, I didn’t need to do anything. So I watched carefully drifting in thought. There was talk of historiographical frames: turns in philosophy and history, asking questions with graduate students, contextualizing in the longer past and the closer past, what we call our subject. There was the labor of difference, us and the economists, us and sociologists, us and our contribution to the present, us and the tropics. The production of meaning, suggested other things, which I keep to myself. Participating and not participating, the status of the spectator, consuming.

There is comfort in alienation. Everybody should try it sometime.

Written by Tiago

7 October 2010 at 2:36 am

Mini-Symposium in Brazil, 20-21 Aug. 2010

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On August 20-21 the Department of Economics at Universiy of São Paulo will host a mini symposium on the history of postwar economics. Three renowned scholars on the subject will give a talk at this event: E. Roy Weintraub (Duke University), Mary Morgan (LSE and University of Amsterdam) and Marcel Boumans (University of Amsterdam). They will interact with the community of local scholars and students—and I truly hope the students will see how interesting this subject is…

As I know that everybody is waiting to come to Brazil only in 2014 (wiser people would come now and in 2014, at least…), I am working on having it streamed live on internet and recorded (the videos will be freely available on internet afterwards). For further information on this recording (to be posted later) and for further details about the event, please check the symposium webpage at:

http://www.usp.br/feaecon/hope/

Written by Pedro

12 July 2010 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Events, Our profession

HES 2010

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One special thing that called my attention at the last HES in Syracuse was the impressive number of young scholars. As we know, the young scholars program, started in 2000 by Sandra Peart (Dean of the Jepson School at the University of Richmond), recently gained substantial financial support from Warren J. and Sylvia J. Samuels: as a result, the program is now dedicated to them as the Samuels Young Scholars Program. If the program had an average of 8 young scholars attending the HES meetings from 2000 to 2007, in 2009 (Denver) they were 14 and this year 16. Two characteristics of this group is worth mentioning: the majority is non-American, most of them doing Ph.D. in Europe. If this trend continues, it would be easier for the HES meetings to take place abroad (i.e., outside North-America)…

Written by Pedro

6 July 2010 at 6:37 pm

Posted in Events, Our profession

Paul Samuelson Memorial @ AEA 2010

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Paul Samuelson (from Nobelprize.org)

There was a memorial session to Paul Samuelson that was added to the program of the ASSA/AEA meetings in Atlanta. The session was presided by Robert Hall (Stanford University) and had as speakers: Robert Solow (MIT), Peter Diamond (MIT), Avinash Dixit (Princeton University), Robert Merton (Harvard University) and James Poterba (MIT). Both Kenneth Arrow and Stanley Fischer were invited but could not attend. Nonetheless they wrote some remarks that were read by Bob Hall at the session.

Solow was the first to speak and started by posing the following question: who was the most influential economist of the last 70 years? He then argued that this is an ambiguous question. If it refers to the world of politics, newspapers and media, the answer would be Keynes, Friedman, among others, and Paul Krugman in the future. If the question refers to how economics operates and what we do, the answer would undoubtedly be Paul Samuelson, he continued.

Solow then went on and talked about many sides of Samuelson, about his broad interest on economics (he was, to Solow and other panelists, the last generalist in economics), about his understanding that the role of economic theory is to make business journalism better, and other things. Two things are worth mentioning here. First, Solow argued that Samuelson abandoned several areas of economics because he saw them going in the wrong direction and becoming uninteresting. Solow took the opportunity to implicitly raising his criticisms to modern macro by observing that Samuelson abandoned macroeconomics for this reason. Second, Solow said that the Great Depression was really an experience that marked his and Samuelson’s life very much, and made them question the stability of a capitalist economy. This made them become, in Solow’s own words, “cafeteria Keynesians“: those who say “I’d have a little bit of this, and a little bit of that” and “No, thanks, not that”.

Peter Diamond reinforced the role played by Samuelson’s Foundations in his training as an economist, and also praised Samuelson’s overlapping-generations model. He mentioned that as a graduate student at MIT he had both micro and macro with Samuelson because in that year Solow (who usually taught macro) was away.

Other panelists talked about Samuelson’s outstanding intelligence and his habit of working hard, but also of playing tennis regularly in the afternoons, about the fact that he raised 6 children and about his unique habit of calling people and start talking about economic models and ideas without even asking either how the person was doing or if the time was appropriate. Samuelson was praised as a teacher (who was good at showing the subtleties of an issue but not very good in teaching the basic ideas), as someone who understood that mathematics was a powerful language, and as a giant on whose shoulders the current generation stand.

Relevant to historians, two of the panelists repeated two stories already known to some of us. The first was told by Dixit: that Samuelson liked telling stories about economists (like Smith, Marshall, Fisher, Keynes, Joan Robinson…) during his lectures and that he had a special affection for Frank Ramsey. Dixit said that in a class Samuelson told the students that Ramsey has learned German in a week, by reading Kant using a dictionary (with my apologies for self-promotion, details on this apparently false story can be found in my article on Ramsey published in HOPE). The second was by Poterba who mentioned that Samuelson had made a very important contribution to the theory of optimal taxation in a memorandum to the US Treasury in 1951, in which he explained and recast Ramsey’s result of 1927 and which was later published in the Journal of Public Economics (1986) as a historical document.

All in all, it was a very interesting session.

P.S.: AEA members ca watch this and other recorded sessions online at the AEA website. If you want to read Krugman on Samuelson, check his blog.

Written by Pedro

8 January 2010 at 2:06 am

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