Great Lines from Bob Solow
By David Henderson
On February 25, I posted some lines from an Arjo Klamer interview with Bob Lucas and promised to post some of my other favorites. The interview with Bob Solow of MIT has a lot of my favorites. All of these interviews are in Klamer’s Conversations with Economists. I first met Solow when I was an undergrad for a year, 1971-72, at the University of Western Ontario in London. In the winter, Solow came to UWO as part of an accreditation team and undergrads were encouraged to visit him. I think I was the only one who took up the offer and we talked for about 30 minutes.
Asked how it works when Solow tries to talk to Bob Lucas and Tom Sargent, Solow replies:
It doesn’t work very well. There are two reasons for that, I guess. One reason is that we really start from very different assumptions about the economy, so it is very hard to communicate seriously. Frank Ramsey, a philosopher, once said that many conversations strike him as analogous to the following conversation: “I went to Grantchester today.” “That is funny, I didn’t.”
A few lines later, Solow says: [I]n any conversation between say Lucas or Sargent and me, there is an element of game playing. There is a tendency to grab a debating point whenever you see it.
Klamer: Why is that?
Solow: I suppose that each of us has self respect to maintain. No good motives, only bad motives. If we were all better people, it would not happen. We have positions and we want to defend those, not merely seek the truth.
It happened to me once at the National Bureau of Economic Research; it didn’t go very well. The reason it doesn’t go well is, I think, that I say something within my set of assumptions, and Barro will say in effect (but not in these words) that it is absolute nonsense, meaning by that it is nonsense on his assumptions. So I will say in return, “That is funny, I did not go to Grantchester.”