Saturday, February 18, 2012

Early Contributions to Training in Econometrics at the USDA

My colleague, Malcolm Rutherford, has recently published a really interesting paper on the history of statistical and economic education at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School. The school was founded in 1921, and exists to this day. As Malcolm explains, the USDA Graduate School played a seminal role in instruction in statistics in the 1930's, at a time when Econometrics was in its infancy.


I mentioned Malcolm's work in a post last year, titled "An Overly Confident (Future) Nobel Laureate". That post mentioned Milton Friedman's gaffe at a seminar being presented at the USDA Graduate School by Jerzy Neyman in 1937.

Malcolm's paper, titled "The USDA Graduate School: Government Training in Statistics and Economics, 1921-1945", published in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of the History of Economic Thought (vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 419-447). If you don't have online access to this journal, the Working Paper version of the paper is available here.

To give you the flavour of the paper, here's the abstract:
"The USDA Graduate School was founded in 1921 to provide statistical and economic training to the employees of the Department of Agriculture. The school did not grant degrees, but its graduate courses were accepted for credit by a significant number of universities

In subsequent years, the activities of the school grew rapidly to provide training in many different subject areas for employees from almost all federal departments. The training in statistics provided by the school was often highly advanced (instructors included Howard Tolley and, later, Edwards Deming), while the economics taught displayed an eclectic mix of standard and institutional economics. Mordecai Ezekiel taught both economics and statistics at the school, and had himself received his statistical training there. Statistics instruction in 1936 and 1937 included seminar series from R.A. Fisher and J. Neyman, and courses on the probability approach to sampling involving Lester Frankel and William Hurwitz became important after 1939. The instruction in economics was noticeably institutionalist in the period of the New Deal. Towards the end of the period considered here, the instruction in economics became narrower and more focused on agricultural economics.



The activities of the school provide a basis for understanding some of the sources of the relative statistical sophistication of agricultural economists and of the statistical work done in government in the interwar period. It is noteworthy than within the USDA Graduate School, and in contrast to the Cowles Commission, statistical sophistication coexisted with an approach to economics that was not predominantly neoclassical. It also provides a light on the place of institutional economics in the training of government economists through the same time span."


I've had the opportunity to read various versions of Malcolm's paper, and to have access to some of his archival material. I can assure you that this paper is a great read!

© 2012, David E. Giles

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