Economist Life Stories

About this project 

The impact of the discipline of economics in our society is hard to overstate. Economics structures government policy, guides decision-making in firms both small and large, and indirectly shapes the larger political discourses in our society. Since 2015, the Oral History Center has worked with the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago to capture oral histories of selected economists associated with Chicago economics. Economist Life Stories is more than a collection of life histories; it chronicles the history of a scholarly community and institutions at the University of Chicago, such as the Graduate School of Business, the Cowles Commission, and the Department of Economics. It also reflects the achievements of faculty and students in the domains of economic policy-making and private enterprise around the world. Although this project focuses on the leaders and students of the University of Chicago Department of Economics, the Graduate School of Business, and the Law School, we hope to add more stories from economists around the world as the project expands.

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Financial support for this work was provided by the Becker Friedman Institute and members of the BFI Council, whose contributions are gratefully acknowledged.

Oral histories

Lester Telser Oral History

Now online, An Oral History with Lester Telser: Beyond Conventions in Economics. Lester Telser is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A student at Chicago in the 1950s, Dr. Telser was first a professor in the Graduate School of Business until 1964. Dr. Telser’s life work is the theory of the core, a variant of game theory that involves coalitions of agents as opposed to individuals working to maximize their advantage. He used sophisticated mathematics to study why and how certain forms of markets are organized without appeals to more established concepts in economics. As both a student and colleague at the Chicago economics department, and as a fellow at both the Cowles Commission and the Cowles Foundation, Telser is a key witness to the transformation of the field of economics after World War II.

Arnold Harberger Oral History

We are pleased to launch the next interview in the Economist Life Stories Project: Sense and Economics: An Oral History with Arnold Harberger. This oral history with Arnold Harberger was conducted in seven daylong sessions in Los Angeles from the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2016. Dr. Harberger is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago, and Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles. He is perhaps most widely known for overseeing the Chile Project, which trained Chilean students in economics who then went on to found programs in economics and take up positions in the Chilean government. However, that story is merely one in Dr. Harberger’s 65-year career in technical assistance and education around the world. He has consulted for the U.S. government, numerous individual nation-states, as well as institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Of equal importance is his career as a scholar, from his training and interest in international trade to his work in public finance, especially project evaluation and benefit-cost analysis. Throughout, this oral history explores his lifelong pursuit of “real-world economics,” research that both draws from and supports economic policy-making. 

George P. Shultz Oral History

Problems and Principles: George P. Shultz and the Uses of Economic Thinking is the first oral history in the Economist Life Stories Project. George Shultz is perhaps best known for his public service. He was appointed Secretary of Labor, the first Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Secretary of the Treasury during the Nixon Administration, and later became Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration. But before that, he was professor of economics and dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago. Mr. Shultz talks at length about his years at Chicago, but a thread throughout this life history is the economist’s way of thinking about and understanding the world. Most importantly, from his military service in World War II to his far-ranging policy analysis since he left public life, Mr. Shultz speaks of the importance of moving past rigid ideological positions to work with others to solve concrete problems.

The following interviews in our collection are relevant to the histories of agricultural economics and the New Deal, which are explored in the George S. Tolley interviews:

Cully Alton Cobb: The Cotton Section of the Agricultural Adjustment

Paul Schuster Taylor: California Social Scientist Volume I: Education, Field Research, and Family

Paul Schuster Taylor: California Social Scientist Volume II: California Water and Agricultural Labor

*The Reminiscences of Howard R. Tolley

Thomas C. Blaisdell Jr.: India and China in the World War I Era; New Deal and Marshall Plan; and University of California, Berkeley

*This interview belongs to the Columbia Oral History Project and is featured here to complement George S. Tolley's interview.

Additional oral history interview projects with substantive content on the history of economics:

Commerce, Industry, and Labor — Individual Interviews

Slaying the Dragon of Debt: U.S. Fiscal Politics and Policy