Because of an editing error, an article on Page 36 this weekend about the failure of economists to anticipate the latest recession misquotes the economist John Maynard Keynes, who compared the financial markets of the 1930s to newspaper beauty contests in which readers tried to correctly pick all six eventual winners. Keynes noted that a competitor did not have to pick “those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those that he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors.” He did not say, “nor even those that he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of other competitors.”
After two years at MIT (supported in the second year by the National Science Foundation), I received a Fulbright fellowship to Cambridge for 1965-1966. At the time, there were three High Churches in the economics profession: Chicago on the right and Cambridge, . on the left, with MIT being in the center. Cambridge was still basking in the reflected glory of Keynes, who had revolutionized economics some thirty years earlier. Lord Kahn, of the Kahn multiplier (which explained how a dollar of government expenditure had a multiple effect in increasing GDP), Joan Robinson, Nicky Kaldor, James Meade, David Champernowne, Piero Sraffa, these were among the gods that populated the colleges of Cambridge. I wanted to see as many views as I could, and I worried about coming too much under the influence of Samuelson and Solow. Joan Robinson was assigned as my tutor. She had originally wanted me to redo my undergraduate degree - she thought it would take some time to undo the damage of my MIT education, but eventually she was prevailed upon instead to take on the responsibility of my re-education. We had a tumultuous relationship. Evidently, she wasn't used to the kind of questioning stance of a brash American student, even a soft-spoken one from the mid-west, and after one term, I switched to Frank Hahn. He was flamboyant, and always intellectually provocative. Cambridge was in ferment. The quality of the students and the young lecturers matched that of the gray eminces: Jim Mirrlees (later to get the Nobel prize), Partha Dasgupta, Tony Atkinson; Geoff Heal, David Newbery and a host of others. There was a sense of excitement that was associated not just with the generation of new ideas, but with the belief that those ideas were important, and not just for economics, but for society more broadly. As Frank Hahn demonstrated the dynamic instability of the economy (a problem posed by the absence of futures markets going out infinitely far into the future; in technical terms, the absence of a transversality condition), he would excitedly exclaim that he had put another nail in the coffin of capitalism.