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Background information

When did you first decide to study economics?

Well, there is a story to that. I came to Harvard College in 1940 as a 16-yearold

freshman with no intention of studying economics; I did not even know

what economics was. At that point I thought I might be a biologist but I

proved to be no good at that so I started off as a major in general social

science. I studied subjects like elementary economics, psychology, sociology

and anthropology. The reason I was interested in social science was just the

circumstances of the time. Remember it was 1940, the Depression was just

over, and the war had just begun. In 1942, after two years, I quit Harvard

College and joined the army, which seemed more important to me then. In

1945 I returned to education and I said to the girl I left behind and who has

been my wife ever since, ‘You majored in economics; was it interesting?’

When she said yes I decided to give it a try. At the time I was under pressure

to choose something to study because I was discharged in August and the

school term was due to start in September. I was still an undergraduate.

Anyway, it turned out all right. So the reason I studied economics was related

both to my general interest in what was happening – why society was not

working so well in the 1930s and 1940s – and to sheer desperation because I

had to do something in a hurry.

As a student, which of your teachers inspired your interest in economics?

Mainly Wassily Leontief, who taught me for one course, even before I

joined the army. In those days Harvard College had a tutorial system and

every student majoring in economics had a member of the faculty assigned

to him as a tutor. We met once a week and it was obviously an imitation of

the Oxford and Cambridge system. Wassily was my tutor and I really learnt

my economics from him; he was undoubtedly the main person who inspired

my interest in economics. The only other teacher in those days who really

caught my imagination was Dick Goodwin, who had been my teacher in the

elementary economics course that I had taken in 1940–41. I hit it off with

him very well. After the war when I came back I studied more economics

with him.

Which economists have had the greatest influence on the direction that your

own work has taken?

Since I completed my PhD degree, Paul Samuelson and Jim Tobin – both

very good friends – are the people whose way of doing economics I admired

and still admire. They were representatives of what I now (I did not see it

then) think of as the new style of doing economics after the war. Economics

went from being a sort of cultural subject to a model-building subject, and I

liked that. Paul Samuelson and Jim Tobin were the people who for me

exemplified that new approach. The other name I would mention, but not

from a personal contact point of view, only from his work, was Lloyd Metzler.

I read Metzler’s work after I had read Samuelson’s [1939] multiplier–accelerator

papers. Metzler’s [1941, 1947] papers on inventory cycles and ‘Wealth,

Saving and the Rate of Interest’ [1951] were absolutely splendid. I did not

know Lloyd Metzler very well because he had gone off to Chicago by then

and later he suffered a terrible brain tumour. After that he was no longer the

real Lloyd Metzler.