Thursday, December 4, 2008

The McKenzie Lecture

For those of you who don't know, Lionel McKenzie founded the Ph.D. program in economics. He was one of the founders of general equilibrium theory and constructed the first proof for existence of a competitive equilibria.

He gave the lecture in microeconomics today.

It was pretty remarkable. He's 89 now, but still managed to get up to the blackboard and draw some pretty impressive diagrams. It wasn't a particularly technical lecture - he admits that he can't follow the details of all his papers anymore - but neither can I. You could tell that he still has a firm grip on all of the ideas. I wish it was recorded. Some anecdotes from the talk:

  • When presented with Nash's paper on equilibrium, von Neumann dismissed it as trivial.
  • Before either the McKenzie or the Arrow/Debreu papers on existence of equilibrium were published, McKenzie had asked Debreu what his current project was. Debreu refused to answer. Indeed, McKenzie presented his paper for the first time at a conference where Debreu had presented for the first time that morning and found out about that paper when Debreu stood to ask if his paper implied McKenzie's. McKenzie replied that maybe it was the opposite. (Neither imply the other.)
  • First-year students here at Rochester were formerly required to read Walras' Elements.
  • When told in 1954 that Debreu's Theory of Value was published, McKenzie replied that it meant he had another year to finish his book. It was not until 2002 that his book was published.
  • Four-hour lectures were not uncommon before the advent of duplicating technology, when he had no other way to pass on class notes.

It's remarkable to hear things like "upper semicontinuous correspondence" roll off the lips of someone of almost ninety years. Though given he was the first to publish an economics article using Kakutani's fixed point theorem, he would be the one.

Despite this, it was hard not to find it depressing. On being introduced as the first person to construct an existence proof, he interjected with "I exist too long". I can only imagine how frustrating it is to dedicate a life to an academic field, find that age has robbed one of the ability to contribute or even comprehend, but yet with more time than ever on one's hands.

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