Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 13

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Shortly after my arrival at Cambridge I struck up a warm friendship with a very bright young faculty member, Jim Mirrlees (who was to get the Nobel Prize later), recently returned from a stint of research in India. (Although he was a high-powered theoretical economist, he had what seemed to me an almost religious/moral fervor for doing something to help poor countries). Even more than Frank Hahn, he got involved in the theoretical analysis in my dissertation, and helped me in making some of the proofs of my propositions simpler and less inelegant.

One time I had found an error in the proof of a proposition in a widely-read article on Growth Theory recently published by Hahn (jointly with Robin Matthews). I was pretty sure that their proposition was correct, but not the way they proved it. The morning I showed this to Hahn in a Department common room, he and several others got busy on the blackboard with constructing an alternative proof, but all of them failed. At one point Mirrlees entered the room and asked what was going on. He looked from a distance for a few minutes at the futile attempts on the board, and then proceeded to another part of the board, and wrote down a neat proof. Everyone in the room clapped. His method of proof also gave me an idea in proving some propositions later in my dissertation.

In Cambridge your supervisor cannot be your examiner, the dissertation has to be approved by two examiners, one internal (to the university), the other external. Mirrlees eventually was appointed my internal examiner. Incidentally, later Mirrlees also became the internal examiner on Kalpana’s dissertation, even though her work was not on theory, but on Indian agriculture. I used to tell Jim that while other people had a family doctor, we had in him a family examiner. Whenever he and his first wife Gill (who I think was a school teacher) went to a dinner party, and economists indulged in their bad habit even there of talking technical economics, I used to notice Jim’s sweet gesture in valiantly trying to whisper into Gill’s ears translations of those technical arguments in more comprehensible language. (He later lost Gill to cancer).

Even though Amartya-da was instrumental in my going to Cambridge, and we often chatted in the evenings, and he gave me a lot of advice about negotiating life in Cambridge, I was never his student, nor was my research at that time related to his on Social Choice theory. Later when his (and my) research moved more to specific policy areas in economic development we interacted a lot more. Also, he left Cambridge for Delhi School of Economics shortly afterward.

I benefited in my dissertation from interaction also with Christopher Bliss (an English-Catholic fellow graduate student) and Christian von Weizsäcker (a visiting economist from Heidelberg, belonging to the famous Weizsäcker family, which included several distinguished academics and statesmen, including a President of Germany). For use in my work on Growth Theory I audited some courses (on non-linear differential equations) in the Mathematics Department; I was generously helped by an English graduate student there in catching up.

Since I was working on the interface of International Trade and Growth Theory, it was my good fortune that at the time Cambridge was at the frontline of Growth Theory, with its own faculty plus some eminent year-long visitors. The most distinguished among the latter were Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow (both Nobel laureates later). I was in awe of both of them, but found out how decent and approachable they were.

If there was any economist who deserved more than one Nobel Prize it was Arrow, whom I have always regarded as the greatest economist of the 20th century (in the company of only Keynes, and possibly Samuelson). There is hardly any branch of Economics which has not been enriched by him, and in addition he opened up new branches. He was a man of infinite intellectual curiosity. He gave me comments on my papers (two of them grew out of his work on Growth Theory), and put me in touch with some people in the US who were working in related areas. In view of my work being at a later stage than theirs, he advised me to quickly publish some of my papers, which I then did, even before I finished my dissertation. He and Hahn were jointly writing a book on General Equilibrium Theory, which Hahn grandiosely described as “the last nail in the coffin of capitalism”, to which Arrow added: “And my job is to make sure that nail is golden”.

Arrow was such a fast thinker that in class we sometimes had difficulty in keeping up with him: in the midst of his exposition of a particular idea, he’d pause and move over to some new idea that had just crossed his mind, before we could fully grasp the original idea. He was also a man of charming simplicity. I had often seen him bicycling across the campus (both in Cambridge, and later in Stanford). Once after a seminar we all went out for a drink, he joined us; I saw a bulging bag strapped across his chest while seated. I offered to relieve him and put the bag next to his seat. He said, no, as he often lost his bag, he was under strict instruction from his wife to keep it firmly strapped to his body.

Robert Solow was (still is, at 97) a stylish, witty man, and bore his brilliance very lightly. In Cambridge he took a particular interest in my work and soon became a mentor. He gave the Marshall Lectures in Cambridge on the basis of a paper he was jointly writing with Arrow and von Weizsäcker. In this paper he was rising up to a challenge posed by Joan Robinson–how to theoretically cope with heterogeneous capital–with machines produced at different dates having different productivity, newer machines being more productive than old ones (which are scrapped in the process of growth). This started a new set of theoretical models in Growth Theory called ‘vintage capital’ models. Inspired by Solow’s Lectures in some of my dissertation chapters I used the idea that low productivity in poor countries might be due to old machines being scrapped later. I published several other papers with such models in top journals. Solow liked these papers, and one day before going back to MIT he asked me if I’d like to join the faculty there, which threw me off balance (more on this later).

He used to stay in a house next to Fenner’s Cricket Ground in Cambridge. He asked me to explain to him the strange game they were playing there. He saw some family resemblance of the game to baseball, but found it mysteriously slow, and said the strangest thing was that for a period nothing seemed to have happened, and yet people clapped in appreciation—I had to explain the ‘maiden over’ to him. I gave him a short account of the game rules, and ended by saying: “Bob, think of it as baseball on valium”. (These were days long before the invention, to me rather unwelcome, of 20-over or one-day cricket games).