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Waiting for Adam

March 29, 2002

The parable of the modern-day economics Ph.D. student reminds one of Beckett's famous play, "Waiting for Godot," but instead of Godot, I am waiting patiently for Adam. Adam Smith, that is.  He is nowhere to be found.  

In years of searching through economics departments at two major research universities, I have found that he is quite the elusive figure. Not that one should actually expect to see Adam Smith in a department of economics in the year 2002--I was certainly not expecting it--but his absence is telling nonetheless and stands as a major weakness in the training of the next generation of economists.

Typical Ph.D. economics students may be able to tell you lots about Kuhn-Tucker conditions, Hamiltonians, optimal control theory, undetermined coefficients, differential equations, and the like. They may speak fluently the language of mathematics and speak of sophisticated programs in GAUSS, SAS, and STATA.  

They may look at you with a curious bewilderment, however, upon the mention of Adam Smith. Perhaps they know of him. I doubt they know of the Physiocrats. I doubt they know much of even Mr. Ricardo, aside from a passing mention of Ricardian equivalence buried under mountains of pseudo math-department proofs. Then there’s Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School. He was a pioneering intellectual who explained the origins of money and explained value in terms of marginal utility, but who is now shunned or forgotten.

I do not intend here to impugn the teaching of mathematical economics, econometrics, and the like. Not at all. In fact, I agree that they are indispensable tools for completing a Ph.D. and teaching in a university setting. They do help organize one's thoughts and communicate with the profession, and they are clearly important tools for graduate students.  

However, it seems that we often neglect building rigorous intuition in our emphasis on technique. Economics is an impressive body of work, but it is precisely in that point that I am troubled. It seems that we have lost sight of the folks who brought us here, and much remains to be learned from the masters themselves.  

It seems troubling to me that I (along with nearly ever other Ph.D. student in economics in the nation) can get a doctorate in economics without ever so much as glancing at what most consider to be one of the defining works in the development of economic thought: The Wealth of Nations. I can earn my Ph.D. by spending my days working on mathematical proofs and optimization theory without ever even laying a finger on Keynes's General Theory, Malthus's Essays on Population, or Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.  

Austrian economists in particular would notice that, if Smith and Ricardo are largely brushed aside in the training of modern economists, Menger, Mises, and Rothbard are also nowhere to be seen in the vast majority of programs.  

It bothers me that professors will extend glowing praise for proofs of the separating hyperplane theorem, but smile with a wink and a nod if I profess a troubling ignorance of the role of the Physiocrats in the development of Smith's economic philosophy. 

If I can solve systems of nonlinear differential equations in my sleep or know what upper hemi-continuous is, then I am deemed to be worthy of a Ph.D. in economics even if I do not know the name Hayek, a Nobel prize-winner in the field.

I wonder whether the same things bother my professors? Some, perhaps, but a dwindling minority I'm sure. Nearly all of them were trained, after all, in the same mathematical rigor. What we are doing by focusing ever more intently on technical methodology is building economists who think that the economy functions like a blackboard mathematical model.  We are gaining technical expertise that might rival that seen in the engineering department, but we are rapidly losing fundamental economic intuition, and we are being ever more removed from Smith's Moral Philosophy.    

I am not arguing that all Ph.D. students need to be experts in the history of economic thought; that is a field with its own experts. I do strongly believe, however, that we should at least expose graduate students to the field. Is one class in history of thought in a typical five-year Ph.D. program too much to ask of our universities? Few require it anymore. It is often even difficult for a graduate student who wants to take such a class as an elective to do so, since course offerings, even at large well-funded departments, are heavily skewed to the quantitative courses.

I am afraid the rush to push economists into the so-called "hard sciences" with never-ending emphasis on quantitative skills and nearly complete ignorance of the social side of the Queen of the Social Sciences will lead us to a generation of economists who are perhaps blissfully unaware that theirs is (or should be) a social science with a rich and meaningful history.  

Trust me; it is easy to lose sight of the fact that economics is a study of human action when one is narrowly focused on the nuances of mathematical methodology. Only by understanding at least some of where we came from, after all, can we really determine an effective course for where we should go. In the meantime, I'd better get back to my studies while I continue to wait impatiently for Adam.

Brandon Dupont is a graduate student in economics at the University of Kansas.  Send him MAIL.

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