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Economics Department at UC Berkeley celebrates century on the cutting edge
06 November 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - The University of California, Berkeley's Economics Department started out humbly 100 years ago, steadily building up bragging rights.

This fall, as it marks its centennial, the department is unabashedly celebrating its "fundamental contributions to every field of economics," said Richard Gilbert, department chair. "No problems have been too abstract or too applied for this department. From pure theory to public policy applications, Berkeley economists have changed the way economists think and work."

On Friday (Nov. 8), many alumni of the department will return to campus for a symposium about its 100-year history,
The department counts four Nobel Prize winners on its faculty, a dozen listings in the latest edition of "Who's Who in Economics," a MacArthur "genius" Fellow and three recipients of the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, issued every two years to the most promising American economist under 40.

UC Berkeley's economists frequently testify at congressional hearings, and many have taken leaves of absence from campus when summoned to serve in top Washington, D.C. posts. The five most recent deputy assistant attorney generals of the U.S. Justice Department's Antitrust Division have hailed from the Economics Department.

The faculty's research interests include mathematical models as well as psychology and economic history. Their work extends from statistical measurements to abstract theories, from studying how teen smoking affects school performance to the economic conditions of the Dustbowl migrants who fled west during the Great Depression. UC Berkeley economists, known for applying theory to real world problems, have examined welfare and tax reform, gas prices and foreign financial crises, health care and retirement savings, poverty and procrastination, and even if professional football teams should kick or "go for it" on fourth down.

In fact, the Economics Department seems to have more than a passing interest in football. Since 1983, it has had its own football team for one special event: Little Big Game against Stanford University's Economics Department. Traditionally played by the longstanding rivals before Big Game, Little Big Game has expanded to sometimes include Frisbee. Coaching the very first game were Nobel Laureates Gérard Debreu of UC Berkeley and Kenneth Arrow of Stanford.

"Got McFadden?" taunted UC Berkeley's team T-shirts in 2000, just weeks after UC Berkeley economist Daniel McFadden won the Nobel Prize.

Well-known graduates of the department include Clark Kerr, UC Berkeley's first chancellor and president of the University of California system, and current Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez. Andreas G. Papandreou was hired in 1956 at UC Berkeley as an economics professor and became the department chair, recruiting Debreu and other mathematical economists. Papandreou later became president of Greece.

An exhibit documenting the evolution of one of the nation's first university departments devoted solely to economics is at the Longs Business and Economics Library at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. On display are photos of the Nobelists: Daniel McFadden, George Akerlof (2001), Gerard Debreu (1983) and John Harsanyi (1994), and copies of the medals they won. McFadden also is one of the department's three Clark Medal winners, along with professors Matthew Rabin and David Card.

On a lighter note, the exhibit includes a slide rule for viewers who remember what the device was used for before the hand-held calculator came on the scene.

There's also a Slinky from the toy collection of Rabin, considered a pioneer in behavioral economics. The winner of the Clark Medal and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" Fellowship also is known for his colorful tie-dyed T-shirts.

The character and tone of UC Berkeley's Economics Department is unlike any other, said assistant professor Edward Miguel, who calls it egalitarian, friendly and supportive, without the rivalries he observed at other universities before moving to Berkeley in the summer of 2000.

"Some of the senior, very well respected folks in the (UC Berkeley) department really set a tone that's respectful of both senior colleagues and junior colleagues," said Miguel. "It affects the whole department."

On leave this year at Princeton University and writing about his research into health and political economy issues in African development, Miguel said he works down the hall at Princeton from this year's Nobel winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman. He noted that Kahneman is a UC Berkeley graduate who returned to the campus as a professor, co-teaching a course on psychology and economics with Akerlof a decade ago.

The department's reputation, enhanced by major awards in recent years, not only draws top faculty but also is a magnet for the brightest students - especially PhDs, Miguel said.

At the department's graduation ceremony in May 2002, more than 300 students received their undergraduate degrees in economics and 27 received their PhDs.

Megan MacGarvie of New Brunswick, Canada, was taking a course on the history of the international economy in the 19th and 20th centuries while working on her master's degree at the University of Toronto. Some her readings for the class included papers by UC Berkeley economic historians, including Bradford DeLong, Christina Romer, Barry Eichengreen, Martha Olney and Jan DeVries.

"This sparked my interest in studying economics at Berkeley," said the 26-year-old,who is hoping to receive her PhD in economics in May 2003. "When I arrived here, I discovered that Berkeley has excellent faculty in every field."

Sergio Firpo, a PhD student from Rio de Janeiro, said he was drawn to UC Berkeley because of the Economics Department's strength in econometrics, his field of specialization.

The department's reputation is reflected not only in its ability to attract students, but also in students' success finding jobs upon graduation. Placing more than 85 percent of its graduates into the job market is par, according to Helga Northrop, a staff graduate advisor for 19 years in the department's student services unit.

Despite the economic downturn of the past year, all but one of the 31 PhDs who left the department found a job. Employment is often in academia, but graduates also find work with such institutions as the Federal Reserve Bank, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, U.S. Treasury Department, Bank of Japan, Bank of England, and think tanks.

"Most of our PhD graduates have more than one offer to chose from," said Northrop. "The average is about six to eight offers, a mixture of academic and non-academic. Very few get only one offer, although some stop with one offer if it is the one they want."