An Interview with Professor Irwin

The Dartmouth Review recently sat down with Profes­sor Douglas Irwin to discuss the Political Economy Project (PeP), which was launched this term at Dartmouth. The PeP, of which Prof. Irwin is the Director, is a faculty-led initiative at Dartmouth that helps students (and faculty) explore ‘big picture’ questions at the intersection of economics, politics, and ethics. This project is highly interdisciplinary, drawing on faculty and ideas from multiple subject areas, most notably philosophy, history, sociology, government, and economics.

Professor Irwin is a very popular professor in the De­partment of Economics at Dartmouth College. He is the John Sloan Dickey Third Century Professor in the Social Sciences and the author of a number of popular books including Trade Policy Disaster: Lessons from the 1930s , Free Trade Under Fire,and Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade. He has also written many articles on trade policy in books and professional journals. He is currently a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research and has also served on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Here is what he had to say about his time at Dartmouth and the origins of the PeP program:

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): How did you first get this thought for the political economy program? Why did you feel that this was something that wasn’t being addressed by the College?

Doug Irwin (DI): Well, it really started with some articles discussed between Russ Muirhead, myself, and Meir Kohn in the economics department. Basically, the three of us and some people in the government department talked about mutually overlapping interests, but we found that was no forum for us to discuss these ideas or get them into the classroom. The economics department tends to be a little bit more focused on the technical details and empirical studies, without step­ping back and asking big questions about what the role of the economic system is all about in terms of capitalism or socialism or any other type of system you can imagine. We just teach supply and demand and run with that. The govern­ment department sometimes asks these broader questions, but they only touch on economic systems indirectly. So it seems there’s something missing that could be fruitful between these two departments, especially when philosophy is thrown into the mix. In economics, we don’t ask many of those bigger ethical questions, but I think they are interesting ones and I think the students find them interesting too. Something is missing in the current system. We’re all in these narrow academic trenches, doing what our field does, without re­ally talking about it across departments and getting students involved. The PeP is about fixing that.

TDR: Why is this program extracurricular, instead of a joint department credit course?

DI: We actually have six or seven classes in the works for next year.

TDR: Oh fantastic. Would it be a full track in the eco­nomics department?

DI: No. We’re starting off slowly. This is the first year, so we are figuring out what the student interest is before we plunge in too far.

TDR: What sort of personal interest do you have in run­ning this project and why are you attracted to thinking about political economy and how everything fits together?

DI: We’ll I’ve always been a big fan of Adam Smith, and if you look at The Wealth of Nations and some of his other work, it wasn’t just about the narrow economics of supply and demand or capital markets; instead, it asked bigger questions about what is it we want to achieve in society and how the economic system supports that. Smith was also a moral philosopher, not just an economist, and I’ve always been interested in asking some of these questions that fas­cinated him. Even though I have my own little narrow area of academic research and interest, I also have in the back of my head a lot of interdisciplinary thoughts.

TDR: Wouldn’t most students start to look at these broader questions in a post-grad program since they have ideally mastered the basic tools in their undergraduate years?

DI: Actually what usually happens when you pursue a Masters or Ph.D. is you get more and more knowledge in your area. That’s why it’s very important to do this at the undergraduate level, because it very much squares with the classical liberal arts education. You don’t read Adam Smith in graduate school, and if you don’t get him as an undergrad, you’re going to have to try reading him yourself. The reading groups have sort of been a part of this too. The reason why professor Kohn and I introduced these reading groups five or six or however many years ago, was that there are books that we think are really interesting that don’t fit into the standard curriculum. They’re not quite technical or rigorous enough, so we don’t have a course that involves them. I’d like to see one at some point, but in lieu of a course, we thought it would be best to get some interested students around a table to read and discuss these important works.

TDR: How do you think colleges should balance work with the more personal learning?

DI: Well its interesting, you don’t sound like a normal col­lege student because from what I hear most students with the quarter system don’t have time for outside reading, but during the breaks that’s the time they can catch up on things. One of the reasons we do the book group is because we want to get people outside the classroom not just to study the book, but engage with it. No pressure, no credit, just fun.

TDR: How do you weigh the lecture versus the discus­sion parts of a course and how do you think different students learn?

DI: Well, I think a lot of the classes we will be introducing over the next year will be small seminars, so it’ll be our book group but for credit. And obviously the stakes are higher. You have to write papers and participate, so it’s a little more formalized than the book groups in some sense. I can’t quite tell you which courses are more in the earlier stages of the planning process and which ones are almost there. But I can tell you more about mine. I’m doing a course called economic events and ideas and it’s about the interplay of economic ideas and events like the Industrial Revolution and Karl Marx’s response. Then we look at economic growth and the great depression, followed by the rise of political Kensyianism and Fredrick Hayek’s reaction against it. We’ll be reading a lot of texts and really discussing what is contained within them. It’s not a lecture based class at all. We’ll read these guys and then talk about what they have to say.

TDR: I think the whole idea of cycles in human nature and thought is fascinating. It’s a cliché but if you don’t study history you are doomed to repeat it, and I think that’s quite true.

DI: I think we have a lot to learn from the past and we haven’t traditionally taught a lot of economic history or history of economic ideas in the Economics Department. This is really our way of getting that into the curriculum.There’s always a debate about what the right approach is among different economists, and it’s useful to study and come to our own conclusions about what’s relevant for today.

TDR: So for these broader topics, how do you enforce academic rigor in teaching something that’s so ethereal?

DI: Well, the Government Department does it very well in terms of political theory, so when they talk about Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and Hobbes, you really have to read the texts closely and talk about the ideas and their consequences. In my class, we are going to read 50 or 100 pages of Adam Smith and talk about his ideas and then learn something about the Industrial Revolution, why it was considered a revolution and how it changed things. We’re also going to look at the contemporary reactions, pro and con, and then see what Karl Marx thought. He was emerging at the same time, and we can actually read what he said and debate about it. We will read a lot of primary sources and actually get down to what people were debating rather than rely on the secondary sources, which sometimes characterize things in odd ways.

TDR: So how do you encourage students to think in this holistic manner? To think out of the box? For example, to the average econ student, this manner of thinking is likely to be quite new. Do you find you have to teach them some of the methods or frameworks on how to approach the problem before you can dig into it?

DI: I think the method is just a close reading and an open mind…

TDR: So how do you test and teach that?

DI: Well I guess you can’t. However, I think that the students who are drawn to these classes are naturally curious. So it’s a self-selecting thing. Once again, since these are going to be relatively small seminars, if there are a hundred people who sign up we’ll simply split them into as many sections as necessary. It will be similar to the book groups, so we are likely to get the same type of people who are motivated and curious. For example, there are many government majors who haven’t taken any econ classes but may be curious. Maybe they were worried about the technical aspect of [econ classes], but [these seminars] are a way of getting them into an economics class by being more broad and likely more suited to their interests. At the same time, it gives the chance for economic majors to think more broadly about this stuff.

TDR: Does Dartmouth go through academic cycles at all? Over your 17 years at the College, have you noticed any swings between more liberal arts and crossing disciplin­ary approaches versus more specialized approaches?

DI: Seventeen years sounds like a long time, but it’s actu­ally not (at least not long enough to observe big swings or cycles like that). I think what has happened is that most academics and academic departments have gotten increas­ingly specialized. Even in some departments, people occas­sionally can’t converse well with one another because they are so focused on their narrow research agenda. That’s not quite true in economics, but it is true that everyone has very specialized interests that aren’t necessarily overlapping. I think our program is trying to resist that trend a little bit. We are seeing student interest in cutting across departments. I don’t think there is any Dartmouth view on the way to go; it’s very organic. This is a faculty initiative. It’s not like any dean or president said “let’s do this.” A couple of us got together and said “Hey, we’re interested in this, let’s see if we can make it grow.”


TDR: Is there a faculty component as well?

DI: A little. It’s mainly student focused with the Monday night dinners, the reading groups, and the new classes. We are also going to invite outside speakers that are open to talk with students and engage faculty to speak about interesting things. There is one coming in May, David Browser from the University of Missouri, who has written a book called The Moral Foundations of Economic Behaviour – which is a very unusual topic for an economist. We hope that this will be of interest to many students and faculty across departments. He is just giving a public lecture, but that’s a way to start having these conversations

TDR: It sounds like a great program! When you and the few other faculty members you mentioned got together to found the PeP, did you find the College was helpful in connecting you with the nessecary resources?

DI: Actually, what has been very nice is the level of alumni involvement. They have really stepped up. So [the program] is really involving very few of the collage’s scarce resources. That’s really key, since it’s always a fixed pie at any given moment. As a ressult, we are able to accomplish more be­cause of the alumni support we are bringing in.

TDR: From an economics perspective that sounds great! Since the alumni are willing to provide capital to the project, it must be a half-decent idea to say the least.

DI: Yes. And we’ve had some older alums and some younger alums. For instance, I am meeting an ’02 this Friday who heard about us and said ‘gee, I wish [the program] was extant when I went to Dartmouth. ‘ 

TDR: Thank you very much for your time and insight!

If you are interested in reading more about the Political Economy Project, you can visit its informational website at The site has a listing of course offer­ings, events, and other information.