The Depression inspired thousands of young people to become
economists. The War on Poverty and the Great Society in the 1960s
were similarly inspiring, and the upheavals today should be, too.
What more noble work, after all, than coming to understand, and
perhaps alleviate, the wage stagnation, the global pressures, the
layoffs, the job insecurities and the long working days that weigh
so many people.
But, in fact, fewer and fewer Americans are entering graduate
programs and seeking careers in economics.
The Depression made a hero of John Maynard Keynes, the British
economist whose prescriptions for reviving the economy -- and
softening capitalism -- seemed so promising and insightful, even
romantic. And out of the crowded graduate schools of that era came
future giants like Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, James Tobin and
John Kenneth Galbraith. They are all in their 80s and 90s now, and
no longer the role models they were in their heyday.
Who are today's heroes? Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve
chairman so often given credit for the current prosperity, is one.
So are Lawrence H. Summers, the combative deputy Treasury
secretary and former Harvard whiz, and Paul Krugman, the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor whose fame comes as
much from his vivid, prolific writing in newspapers and magazines as
it does from his economics. But somehow, they aren't Pied Pipers.
Is it them or the times? Could Keynes do any better if he were
resurrected today? Or Adam Smith, who was a popular lecturer and
teacher with a wide following? Probably not. The profession is so
The Ph.D. program in economics today, combining a master's degree
and a doctorate, calls for five to seven years of hard, technical
work, harder perhaps than medical school. For bright young people,
higher wages with much less study can be had in management, or
consulting, or law, or on Wall Street. "I have a son who went to
work right out of Harvard as a currency trader," said Angus S.
Deaton, a Princeton economist and a mentor in his profession.
High wages, of course, would not divert a young idealist seeking
to help the world through economics. But the graduate school
training in economics, with its heavy emphasis on mathematics and
mathematical modeling of abstract situations, does not relate easily
to the issues of the day. The idealist, in sum, is too often put
A commission of august economists recognized this shortcoming in a
1991 report. It recommended more attention to "real-world linkages"
- - a bit of advice that graduate schools have so far largely