In Memoriam: Heilbroner

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.

2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Heilbroner”

  1. Marie –

    What a great story about RLH! I co-taught a course with him out at Adelphi in 1995 and we took the train together and had wonderful conversations. The most amazing part was seeing how hard he worked at his writing and how diligently he adhered to his “one page a day” rule.

    I think we caught the last gasp of a great era at the GF. Too bad it came to an end; I see no prospect for a tenure hire in HOET.

    I am planning on teaching a course in our honors program at Ramapo about economic ideas and economic ideologies. I plan on using Bob’s “Worldly Philosophers” and “Lessons from the WPs.”

    Regards to Alex and your family!

  2. so nice to hear these memories. i wrote an obit for Bob for the British journal, _Economic Issues_ (you can read it here:

    more than five years since his passing, what remains atronger than ever is my sense of Bob’s kindness, caring for his students, and his gentle spirit.

    it is so encouraging that his students, such as Marie and Jason, continue the tradition by sharing Bob’s love for engaging ideas with their students, and engaging the ideas of the great thinkers of the past in their own research. Jason had a wonderful paper on technological unemployment in the _Cambridge Journal of Economics_, 2001. one of the things i liked best about the paper was showing that Keynes–and not only Ricardo, Marx–recognized and was concerned about technological unemployment. so different than the conventional keynesian model where labor productivity is held constant.

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