Sidney Weintraub: A Student Remembers - By Lord Meghnad Desai

Posted on: 2021-02-03 17:39:34

I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) between September 1961 and June 1963. Sidney Weintraub was Chairman of the Department of Economics at Penn in my first year. Indeed I received the letter in Mumbai telling me I had been awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship to work in the Economic Research Services Unit for four years sometime in early 1961. The letter was signed by Sidney Weintraub. The Fellowship gave me $1800 for living expenses for nine months and $1600 for tuition. Not being quite sure whether this was enough (though in Rupee terms it sounded a lot to my friends and family) I wrote back asking whether it would be. An answer came promptly (by air mail on wafer thin paper) in the most engaging way that he thought I should be able to manage. So I accepted.

My Fellowship was one of twelve awarded that year. Penn had won a huge grant from Ford to initiate research by its Faculty members recruiting young graduate students to train them by engaging them on their projects. We Fellows were supposed to take only three courses per semester rather than four which were paid for with the $1600. We were supposed to work on the project we were harnessed to. The faculty members who were leading the projects were Lawrence Klein whom I was assigned to (with two others, Winnie Monsood and V.N.Murty). Irving Kravis who specialised in trade (Michael Davenport, an English student worked with him). Paul Taubman worked for Irwin Friend, if I recall correctly. There were others Donald Wood, George Lermer but I forget who they worked for. Sidney Weintraub did not have a project of his own in the Unit and no students were assigned to him. Other senior Professors at Penn were Arthur Bloomfield, Ray Whittlesey (whom I had come to know when he visited Bombay in 1959-60), Bill Loucks, Dorothy Brady, Wilfred Malenbaum, Richard Easterlin and others.

Some years later I worked out that the initiative to get the money must have been Klein's. He had just come back from Oxford to the US. Klein had an ambitious research programme which he went on to implement. Prof Roy Weintraub, Sidney’s son told me that he was persuaded by Sir Roy Harrod to invite Klein when Sidney was visiting Oxford. Klein had gone to Oxford almost overnight from Michigan during the 1950’s when he heard that he may come under a McCarthyite attack because of his membership of the Communist Party of the USA during his youth. Klein never talked about this. The other faculty members were not so active and may have been included in the proposal to buy their support. It became clear even to a raw graduate student from India that Klein was the leader and saw himself as such.

I took two courses with Sidney Weintraub. One was his Price Theory (not called Microeconomics as yet as the word was not yet in general use. The situation would change within a year or so with the publication of the book by Henderson and Quant Microeconomic Theory. It was the same case with Macroeconomics. Ackley's textbook had been published just the year before). Sidney Weintraub used his own book as the assigned book. I bought the 1948 edition of Price Theory. To my regret, I gave it away to another student when I passed my comprehensives. It was a most innovative textbook. It had dynamics in it. Concepts like loss leader and diagrams of clock time effects (though I forget what for).

I had studied a lot of Economics already at the University of Bombay where I did my B.A. and M.A. I knew the standard stuff and did not learn much. Sidney had the most annoying exam method. It was a set of 'fill in the gaps' set of questions. I cannot recall any now, but I remember caricaturing them as 'John Kennedy was the (blank) of the son of Joseph Kennedy'. The correct answer was 'name'! I had been used to essay type question or even multiple choice which I encountered in my Graduate Record Examination (GRE). This was frustrating. I reckon Sidney did not want to spend much time reading essay type answers from the fifty plus students who took the course. The real treat was his course on Recent Developments in Economic Theory which was for Ph.D. Students. There was a long and comprehensive reading list. But seniors who had taken that course previously assured us that it was not necessary to read any of the stuff. You just had to listen to Sydney’s evaluation of the various articles before reading any.

This course had only about ten of us taking it. This was in the Fall Semester of 1962/3. The course was fantastic. Sidney held forth on topic after topic, author after author. Soon you realised what his passions and preferences were. We explored competition and monopoly with forms in between in great detail studying Chamberlin, Robinson, Triffin, Fellner et al. Sidney was sceptical about the possibility of defining these forms precisely enough to distinguish between them. He had, if I recall correctly, a sceptical article on this in AER in the mid-Fifties.

The real joy was when we moved to Macro. Sidney dismissed Patinkin by saying the man did not know anything about money but only about barter. We were relieved we did not have to read Patinkin’s Money, Interest and Prices. The only book he liked and took us through chapter by chapter was Keynes’s General Theory (GT). I had already read GT in Bombay and had been taught well by my teacher P.R. Brahmananda . But Sidney's reading was innovative and refreshing. I imbibed the importance of the Aggregate Demand and Aggregate Supply (AD/AS) Curves. I understood the importance of specifying every variable in nominal terms as heeding what was said in Chapter 4. We were taken all the way through past Chapter 18 to chapters 19,20,21. I never had to think Keynes had assumed a rigid money wage. Of course, IS-LM was not mentioned. Indeed, no textbook was used and it was only when I had to teach Macro some years later, that I read Hicks's classic paper. Sidney had used the AD/AS reasoning in his article in the International Economic Review (1961 or 1962) on Inflation: Two Faces of Janus. Paul Davidson and Eugene Smolensky later published their Macro textbook with the title Aggregate Demand and Supply Analysis, dedicating it to Sidney. I learned the use the AD/AS apparatus and taught it to the puzzlement of my students. I wish Sidney had written a book on Keynes. He would have been almost a decade ahead of Leijonhufvud. When that book came out I felt I had heard it all before (on Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes (1968). Sydney Weintraub was the true founder of Post Keynesian Economics.

Sidney's other favourite book was Joan Robinson's Accumulation of Capital. This is another book I had been exposed to in Bombay, thanks to P.R.Brahmananda. It is an excruciatingly detailed taxonomic exercise in variants of a growth model, all done without using any algebra. Sidney would wax eloquent over it. He had a great admiration for Joan Robinson. In a way he was an English economist in spirit trapped in an American body!

It was during these lectures that we were exposed to Sidney's proud discovery of an empirical constant K which related the unit cost of labour (wage divided by average output per worker) to price. This idea was novel then but later became routine. Sidney thought he had discovered the secret of distribution of income. We were not impressed. George Lermer just laughed out loud when Sidney was waxing eloquent about it.

Much later thinking back about all this, I figured out that the reason for Sidney's plunge into empirical research was that he wanted to show that he was no less a Keynesian than Lawrence Klein. Sidney had been instrumental in getting Klein to Penn. The Department until then was more under the influence of Simon Kuznets than Keynes. (Richard Easterlin was a star Kuznets’ pupil) Sidney thought he was getting a Keynesian to support him.

Klein was in his most ambitious phase who did win the Nobel Prize in 1980. He did not take Sidney as a Keynesian seriously. He was in a hurry to set up his model building empire which he did quite rapidly with his own quarterly US model which became a commercial forecasting device under the Wharton Economic Forecasting Association (WEFA) as well as the Brookings SSRC model. He attracted bright students such as Ronald Bodkin, Joel Popkin, Yoichi Shinkai, Mitsugu Nakamura et al. Sidney was stung by Klein's dismissal of his stance on Keynes. Sidney wanted to show he was as good at empirical research as Klein. His Ph.D. Student John Hotson was however no match for Ronald Bodkin who was researching on a remarkably similar topic - Phillips Curve for US under Klein’s supervision.

The struggle to fight Klein's hegemony spread to junior faculty. Four Assistant Professors, Paul Davidson, Eugene Smolensky, Murray Brown and Charles Levin all left in 1962 or 1963 as they were denied tenure. Two of them, Davidson and Smolensky were Sidney's boys. Murray Brown went to Rochster and Charles Leven to Pittsburgh and then to St. Louis. Klein was establishing his domination. He wanted Penn to be up there with the top Ivy League places. He was trying to recruit theorists (Peter Diamond came for one job seminar as did Steve Marglin, both from MIT. Neither joined.) Bob Summers (brother of Paul Samuelson, father of Larry Summers) was confirmed as he was with Klein.

Such at least was my impression watching from the side lines of Klein's war against the old order. He even went as far as persuading those of us who were taking his course Seminar in Advanced Mathematical Economics to write a term paper on Kuznets Cycle as the exam. It came out in the International Economic Review as a joint article Kuznets Cycles: Their Meaning by Roger Bird, Meghnad Desai, Jared Enzler and Paul Taubman. This was seen as an attack by the Kuznets camp.

I guess Sidney took this most personally. Irwin Friend was also a rival of Klein but he was in the Finance Department. Klein succeeded in building Penn in the image of the other prominent Economics Departments. The quirky character of Penn Economics Department was lost. I found a similar process at work at Madison, Wisconsin where I taught Summer School in 1968 and 1971. It was known for its institutional economics association. It was recast into an identikit Department over the Seventies. It was part of the process of standardization of Economics teaching in the USA

Sidney was getting obsolete in this new world where Micro and Macro were getting standardised across US Departments. He was unique. What I learnt from him could not be found in any book. That is the mark of a great teacher.

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