I was one of the very last students of Robert Heilbroner’s and he was on my committee when I defended in 2000. In 1996 I was his TA, and in 1997, I told him in a casual conversation about my research into California’s early 19th century economic history. I was compiling trade statistics from old account books, but I mentioned some of the things that the missionaries had said about trade in correspondence; one friar refused to accept the high price a merchant offered to pay for mission produce, as it seemed unethical to make the profits.
Robert Heilbroner perked up, and said, “People are still concerned about the ethical implications of economics. Why don’t you write that up?” Not the numbers on trade that I had been so painstakingly collecting, but these funny Franciscan ideas…
That simple phrase was actually something quite powerful. Many of us can uncover new things about theory, if we are focused and dilligent, and Heilbronder did that, too, in his work on Smith. But Robert Heilbroner had a gift of seeing the implications of economic ideas to the wider concerns of humanity. When people say that he could “popularize” economics, that sounds like he merely broke economics down into simple langauge, which again many of us can do. But his gift was something different–this ability to see how the economic ideas linked up with larger human concerns.
When I defended, he found that I had another chapter filled with equations; he was irate and it looked bad for me for a moment. I was relieved that day that others persuaded him to keep his objections out of the official documentation; but I understand why he railed against the cult of math in economics: because it so often takes the discipline in quite the opposite direction as if linking up our insights to the larger concerns of humanity were in fact NOT the point, but a distraction. I continue to crunch numbers, but so far the part of that project that has proved to have layer upon layer of interesting ramifications remains that which developed from that conversation in his office in 1997.