Why Teach Economic Development?

The phone rang. Doug raised his finger to put our conversation on hold and reached over to pick up the receiver. I did my usual thing and got up to peruse his bookshelves. This time, however, he asked me to wait outside. Big things happened in and around his office. Ronal Coase strolled in for a visit on one occasion. Sitting with two Nobel Prize winners had me tongue-tied and immensely content. This time it was a head of state from Latin America on the phone. He was seeking advice on how to kick start economic prosperity.

I walked outside and waited with kid-like anticipation. On the other side of that door, Doug was telling a head-of-state how to end poverty. At the end of that call, I was going to ask him to tell me as well. It was like Christmas morning and I was waiting to be called to the tree. And, like Christmas morning, my imagination went wild with the possibilities.

Would Doug recommend a constitutional amendment as a way for the state to signal its commitment to long-term investors? Or, would he advocate for the introduction of private property rights over land? How about the elimination of red tape so as to create a more hospitable environment for doing business? Or, would he advise the government to devolve political authority in an effort to enhance accountability?

Doug opened the door. I pounced immediately. “What did you say? What did you say?!”

His answer…well, it left me with the same feeling you get when you rip open a present and find a box full of underwear. You are grateful. They are necessary. But, they are not exactly the shiny new thing you were hoping for.

His answer: there is no one answer.

And, to make things even less exciting, he added that answers do not travel well. Answers from the past may not be answers in the present. Answers from one community may not be answers in another community.

His answer…well, it kind of sucked. I felt let down. And, I bet you feel a bit let down as well.

It’s understandable. We want an answer. We want one answer.

And, how in the hell are you supposed to jet-set around the world talking to governments, selling books, and getting your travels documented by MTV with that kind of sound bite? Can you really captivate a crowd by walking on stage and telling them with outstretched arms that “THERE IS NO ONE ANSWER”?

Maybe we can’t. But, we should.

This past semester I had a student asked me “What is the one thing you want us to walk away with?”

My answer: there is no one answer.

[Side note: I did have my Christmas-like moment with Doug. Before leaving Wash U, he let me take as many books as I wished from his shelves and he gave me a recommended reading list. It was an incredible gift. I gift the reading list to you: 17 Books Recommended by Douglass C. North. Thanks for reading the post.]


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Thanks. – shawn

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