Edmund Phelps’s Journey

The winner of this year’s Nobel prize for economics, Edmund Phelps, is a giant in the field. His contributions have been, and remain, so important as that they have altered traditional ways of thinking. According to the social science citations index, he ranks well among the most important economists since Adam Smith. Economists working on the macro economy, its micro foundations, exogenous and endogenous growth theory, the formation of expectations and problems of information and discrimination all refer back to Phelps.

After a brilliant secondary education, Phelps entered Amherst College in Massachusetts without any specific idea about which discipline to embrace or which career to follow. He was passionate about philosophy but, at the insistence of his father, took classes in economics.

As nearly always happens, Phelps’s choice of vocation came after meeting an important professor, in this case the Harvard economist James Nelson. After some hesitation, Phelps decided to pursue graduate education. Paul Samuelson admits that he agreed to do a conference at Amherst with the sole aim of recruiting Phelps to MIT. But Phelps chose Yale, where he came into direct contact with James Tobin and Thomas Schelling. He wrote his thesis under Tobin’s supervision.

With Ph.D. in hand, Phelps spent a year at the Rand Corporation in Los Angeles before returning to Yale. He spent another year at MIT, where he taught with Robert Solow and met Samuelson and Franco Modigliani. Stints at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University followed.