The Education of Angus Deaton

The Education of Angus Deaton

Timothy Taylor 08/10/2020 2
The Education of Angus Deaton

Gordon Rausser and David Zilberman have "A Conversation with Angus Deaton" in the Annual Review of Resource Economics  (2020, 12: pp. 1-22).

For those not already somewhat familiar with Deaton's life and work, the first few page provide a capsule overview. The interview goes into more depth about his early education, working with Richard Stone and Arthur Lewis, and his more recent work including his thesis about "deaths of despair" in the US and his skepticism about the popular randomized control trial methodology.  As a sample, here are some Deaton's comments for how he entered the field of economics, which for modern American academics will sound as if Deaton arrived from some different planet. Deaton says: 

For me in high school, the great virtue of mathematics was you could do it very quickly. I had lots of time for writing and music and for playing sports and things that I actually cared about a lot more. When I went to Cambridge, that really didn’t work anymore. There were a lot of really serious mathematicians there. It’s something that we observe in  all of our classes, I think. You get these kids who come in and they’ve been superstars wherever they were before and suddenly realize they’re not such bright superstars compared with some of the other people in the class.

I spent a couple of years not really doing mathematics but playing cards and going to the movies and enjoying myself. Then at some point the authorities, like my tutor, said, “You can’t go on like this. You’ve really got to do something else. The mathematicians don’t want you anymore.” I said, “Well, I don’t really want them either.” Then I said, “Well, what should I do?” They said, “Well, there’s only one thing for people like you, and it’s called economics.” I had no idea what it even was. I said, “What’s economics?” ...

Oh, I would be 21 really. Then I was assigned an economics tutor and some material to read over the summer. I had a summer job working on the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, going back and forth between Southampton and New York every two weeks. I was selling clothes on board the ships. I remember sitting there with a copy of Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947), or not that one, but the textbook. ... I thought it was wonderful. It just provided that shove, as it were, that nudge if you like. It was more of a shove than a nudge. It put me in a place that I really liked. ... 

I’ve often felt sort of closed off either deliberately or because I never trained. I never went to a PhD program. I had that one year of economics as an undergraduate. There were some stars there, like James Mirrlees, a later Nobel laureate, who was teaching. But these lectures were not very comprehensible. I spent a lot of time trying to figure things out for myself. I’ve often felt that I was right outside the mainstream somehow. ...

I was very envious of the superstar kids in my environment, the kids who’d done economics for three years and who were recognized geniuses. Mervyn King, for instance, was almost my exact contemporary—I think he is two years younger than I am. He was very much a superstar and never got a PhD, because in those days, if you were really good, you didn’t get a PhD. The PhDs were for the sort of failures who were trying to catch up somehow. I was certainly very envious, but over the years, as you said, I began to realize that the things you really learn are the things you figure out for yourself. Sometimes you make mistakes in figuring those things out by yourself and sometimes those mistakes can be productive. ...

Mostly, you look at something, you stare at it, you say, “I just don’t understand this.” Then 999 times out of a thousand, it’s because you made an error that you don’t understand something. But the one other time is the one when everybody’s making an error and it’s just not well understood. I think it was quite helpful not to be super well trained in the conventional stuff. ...

All through my career, I found people who would listen tome ask questions and didn’t mind my ignorance. That’s something that the American graduate school experience is very bad at. Students are terrified because they’re so competitive and also because they’re always frightened of confessing that they don’t understand. Part of the benefit to me of not having gone through that education was I was always looking for people who knew stuff, who would tell me.

And here is one of Deaton's comments on economic development and growth. 

In the back of Arthur’s book on economic growth (Lewis 1955), he raises this question, which doesn’t get asked enough: “Why? Why do we care about this at all?” Because a lot of people don’t. The Pope doesn’t really seem to care about economic growth very much. I don’t know whether Arthur actually talks about Mozart, but he talks about kids growing up in absolute poverty and how they never have the opportunity to develop what may be extraordinary innate skills. There are these buried talents—lost Mozarts, or lost Einsteins—a great term someone’s been talking about recently.

What development does is give people what Amartya Sen would call capabilities, which you just don’t have if you’re living in grinding poverty. The expressions of human genius and human creativity are going to be stifled and stamped out if you don’t have economic development. That’s why you should have development. 

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  • Jake Melvin

    Very interesting

  • Craig Reid

    Excellent article

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.


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