Can Dirty Hands be a Good Thing?

Every so often I get together with an old classmate, and invariably we end up talking about grad school. Over time, we both have come to appreciate more and more the education we endured (which is what it felt like) at UCLA. There were some great professors – some that are well known in the field, others not so much – but I learned a lot from many of them.

Upon reflection, in some ways I can say I learned more from Arnold Harberger than from any other school teacher I’ve ever had. (An old, but still nice interview with Arnold Harberger.) I was lucky enough to have him on my committee, and I learned as much or more from talking to him outside of class than I did from the lectures.

(Two asides. Aside number 1: He would sometimes lecture by drawing interconnected diagrams on several different boards at once, so there were a few occasions where one had to make the choice between whether to copy things down or try to understand them. Aside number 2: Note that this admiration is one sided. My guess is that Harberger was disappointed with me, as I never pursued a career at the World Bank or the IMF, or otherwise went into Public Finance.)

The main thing I learned from him – and I haven’t seen or spoken to him in ten years or more, but I’m still learning this lesson regularly – is how much problems can be simplified. I’m pretty sure he didn’t have the training in math and statistics that many of the younger professors had, but he could cut to what was important and spot implications of the math and the stats that they could not.

But I was thinking of something else in the last few days. I’ve heard it said that Harberger was shortlisted for the Nobel a few times, but he will never win it. This is because though his body of work is Nobel quality, he spent an inordinate amount of time advising some very nasty regimes throughout the world.

Once, in his office, I asked him about his willingness to work with unsavory characters, not to say some really violent #@^&s. His response – I don’t remember his exact words – but it was something like this: “Say I provide advice to Pinochet. I think I provide good advice, and I think if he follows it, it makes the lives of the Chilean people better. If I don’t provide that advice, the Chileans are still stuck with Pinochet, but their lives are worse than they would be if I had provided the advice.”

About once a month or so, I think of that conversation. I’ve never been able to reach a conclusion about whether I think Harberger was right or wrong to work with folks like that. To me, its a tough call. Your thoughts?