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Remembering Ken Arrow: A student's reflection

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Ken Arrow attends Stanford Health Policy's 2020 symposium in October, 2016.
Photo credit: 
Steve Fisch

If there is such a person as a universally respected and universally loved scholar, Professor Arrow was such a man. I have been trying to think of what I might write to pay tribute to him that somebody else could not say better.  I will give it a shot, though I am not qualified to do this task full justice.

Prof. Arrow was a great genius whose work will be spoken about for as long as economics remains a subject of interest. But I am sure that other economists, even someone who did not know him personally, could do an excellent job of recounting his genius. At the very least, Prof. Arrow’s impossibility theorem and his groundbreaking work on general equilibrium models will be part of the standard curriculum of economics, I believe forever. He had an incredibly wide-ranging curiosity, which led him to work that has revolutionized many empirical fields, including my field of health economics.

Let me focus instead on Prof. Arrow’s reputation for being a kind and humble man, about which I can give some specifics. The main thing I have to say about this is that his reputation was well deserved. There are many stories I could tell, but I’ll just tell one here.

In 1989, during the fall of my senior year in college, Prof. Arrow offered a class on economic inequality for undergraduate economics majors. To my surprise, the class was not oversubscribed, and so I signed up. Prof. Arrow was quietly brilliant the whole quarter. In his hands, the economics of inequality touched on an astonishing array of topics, and to this day, I cannot think about the subject except with the framework he presented there.

He was not an outstanding speaker – there was nothing flashy about his style, but there was nothing false either. His aim as a teacher was to focus his students on the material, not himself. Even when he presented his impossibility theorem, I do not remember him saying that it was his theorem.

The next part is embarrassing. The impossibility theorem says, very roughly, that in a society where there is broad disagreement about social policy, democratic processes can produce incoherent social outcomes. When Prof. Arrow taught it in the class, however, I misunderstood and thought the theorem said that democratic processes always lead to incoherent social outcomes. That evening, I found an easy – too easy! – counter-example to the incorrectly understood theorem. So I scheduled a time to go meet with Prof. Arrow to see where I had gone astray.

When we met, Prof. Arrow was very kind as he explained my error. He even apologized for being unclear in his explanation, even though I am sure most of the rest of the class had it right.

He spent the bulk of the time that day trying to find out what I wanted to do with my life. When I told him I wanted to be a doctor and not an economist, he seemed disappointed (this genuinely surprised me) and he encouraged me to think some more about it. That meeting led me for the first time to think really seriously about a career as an economist. That brief meeting with Prof. Arrow changed my life.

It is easy to be sad when someone of Prof. Arrow’s character and genius dies. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to get to know him. I will always count his touch on my life a blessing from God and I will miss him.