Everyone who has completed – or attempted to complete – a PhD thesis knows that it is a long, lonely, painful journey. In my own case, the journey was complicated by breaking it up in the middle with studies at Oxford.
I arrived at Harvard grad school from a mid-sized town in Canada. Coming to such an eminent establishment was of course overwhelming, although I had the advantage of being only 18 in grad school, and so was looked upon as special.
I was immediately part of Professor Dale Jorgenson’s stable of graduate students. Professor Jorgenson, in 1981, was already among the most eminent macro and econometricians in the world and I laboured (unsuccessfully) to create something productive and new under his wing.
All this was interrupted in 1983 when I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship (Ontario and Balliol 1983). For me, this was an extraordinary opportunity to broaden my thinking – 2 years studying philosophy and politics with absolutely no pressure of having to think what I would do next because it was already decided. And it was marvelous – the tutorial system with famous professors to discuss issues one-to-one, long summer nights playing lawn tennis, and winter nights playing ice hockey for the university. So enthralled was I with philosophy that I nearly stayed to do a D.Phil.. I was reluctant, however, to throw away my 2-year investment in the PhD in Economics.
What I had not considered was how the Oxford experience would change me. Specifically, I found it impossible to close Pandora’s box and think about economic problems using the orthodoxy without also thinking about whether the constructs made sense. So on my return I looked for a way to combine my philosophy studies with economics. The result was a philosophical deconstruction of the utility theorem that is at the heart of micro-economic decision-making – Harvard Economics’s worst-ever thesis.
And it was exceedingly difficult to write. First, it was not really valid as a PhD thesis in Economics, as it consisted neither of a theoretical model that could illuminate an important point nor of any empirical study of the economy. More importantly, while I was writing it, it became increasingly obvious that I needed to know much, much more about the world than I possibly could at 22 and having experienced only a university context since age 14.
And so the battle was on – write something good enough to get the PhD, but escape as quickly as possible so I could start to understand how the world and the economy actually function.
In this battle, I was highly appreciative of support from my advisors – Professor Richard Zeckhauser and Professor Stephen Marglin. While one came from what is traditionally called the ‘right’ and one from what is traditionally called the ‘left,’ both were mavericks and so were willing to engage with an unusual student and thesis. That I could have such a combination (I am quite sure there is no other Harvard Economics PhD with the Zeckhauser/Marglin combination) is a testament, I hope, to the eclectic nature of the approach. In Nevinomics, the reader may have already noted, there is no simple relationship between the writings and traditional left/right categories. This is not deliberate but, I believe, simply a consequence of thinking through these issues carefully enough that traditional categories drop away.
In the end, I scraped through – just. I left Cambridge in June, 1987 to take a job in management consulting. I then spent the next year trying to finish the thesis on weekends while working exceedingly hard during the week. I graduated with the class of 1989, finally able to wear the Crimson robe 8 years after arriving (and Harvard Square still under construction).
At the time, I thought that I would spend only a few years working.
It is almost 27 years since I left. And I believe it took every bit of these 27 years of real world experience – diverse experience that provides unique perspectives – to be able to develop the depth of thinking and observation that the Nevinomics project requires.
So the wheel turns and I find myself doing exactly what I was doing 27 years ago – working exceedingly hard as a strategy consultant during the week, then writing my own thoughts and theories – now “Nevinomics” – on the weekend. Now, however, I know enough about the world to answer the questions I think need answering.