By George T. McCandless*
My object when I went to the University of Minnesota for my doctorate was to study mathematical economics and international trade. However the first year started a process that changed all that. My first year Macro professors were Tom Sargent (for the first two terms) and Chris Sims (for the last term). The second year, Sims taught the year long econometrics course (with a heavy times series bias) and in the third and forth years, Sargent taught different advanced Macro courses. In addition, Neil Wallace taught the Money course. Most of us students felt extremely privileged to be among and taught by these young scholars. This years Nobel prize in Economics is a sign of just how privileged we were.
These three, Sargent, Sims, and Wallace, were all young, in their early thirties, dynamic, scary smart and busy moving forward the frontier of macroeconomics. They set a standard for work that most of us students couldn’t even hope to achieve but became our goal. We copied what we could. Sargent attended advanced mathematics courses every semester. We attended advanced mathematics courses. They rejected Keynesian macro (Sims somewhat less). We derided W.W. Heller, the senior member of the department who had been JFK’s Keynesian economic advisor and literally worshiped Robert Lucas. They (and Leo Hurwitz, our micro teacher) were experts in using advanced math for developing economic theory. We would as well and the best students of my time there competed to have one of these four as their advisor. Whatever your plans were before you came to Minnesota in this period, most left as mathematical macroeconomists (either in theory or econometrics).
Not only were these guys scary smart, they were good guys. You could talk to them, about economics, about your life, about your economic career, and they listened. You could have a beer with them. On a personal level, they made you feel their par, even though you knew they were way ahead of you intellectually. Sims played soccer with the department team (and, to set an example of keeping fit for research, he ran up the nine flights of stairs to his office twice every day). Sargent ran three or four times a week, often with students, saying that by running he was in better shape to work more. Wallace played regular tennis games, frequently with students. All of them had open office doors and all were very generous with their time.
The three were great teachers although very different in their styles. Sargent, much like the books that grew out of his lectures, was very organized, methodical, precise, leading you carefully along a difficult intellectual path. Sims was like a flood of information, writing out the equations of the proofs and explaining them at the same time, so much so that I had to tape record his classes to be able to get it all down. Wallace was slower, more pensive, leading the students from one idea to another, showing you how to think. I once gave Wallace a counterexample to a proposition he made in class. After thinking for about two minutes, he decided that the proposition was a dead end and started on a completely different topic. In the classes of each of these professors, you felt you were learning something new, not just to you, but something that was not much known in the profession.
Sargent and Sims were also important examples for us in terms of their politics. I would guess that both have voted for the Democratic party in most US elections. That is how they felt about social justice. I recall Sargent returning from a conference furious about someone who had said, “of course you would think that with your politics.” “What the hell does that idiot know about my politics and what does it matter,” was what Sargent said to us. He did not believe that well intended policies were useful unless they actually worked and he saw much of the macro he did as trying to find out exactly what policies did work and which did not and why. Sims was involved with the Brookings Institute. From both of them the message was clear: doing classical economics well did not mean you were politically conservative.
So I and, I am sure, my fellow students from Minnesota are very happy with the great choices for the Nobel prize this year. However, I am sure that most of them thought the same as I did when we heard the news of the prize: two down, one to go.