|Waiting for Adam
by Brandon Dupont
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
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
< http://www.mises.org/mengerbio.asp > 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, < http://www.mises.org/mises.asp > Mises, and
< http://www.mises.org/mnr.asp > 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
< http://www.mises.org/hayekbio.asp > Hayek, a Nobel prize-winner in the
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
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
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.