Kirsten Ford, a young Old Institutionalist

Kirsten Ford (1976-2014)

I first met Kirsten in the mathematics leveling class for the incoming PhD students. I think it was in 2007, but it might have been the year before. She felt she needed to take more math courses, and did so at Westminster College, where she had obtained her Bachelor's degree. She had come to economics out of a concern with social justice, and her early views were shaped in Dick Chapman's classes on Keynes' General Theory and Chace Stiehl's discussion of classical political economy authors, both PhDs from Utah's graduate program, which influenced her choice for her graduate studies.

At that time I taught two regular courses in the graduate program, the second required macro class, which basically reviewed heterodox approaches and growth theory (both conventional and heterodox views), and the second history of economic thought course, which went from the Marginalist Revolution to the post-capital debates developments (the change in the notion of equilibrium, and what I referred to as the return of vulgar economics; the first part of the course on classical political economy and Marx was taught by E.K. Hunt). She and her classmates, which were among the best cohorts of students in the PhD program I can remember, took also two other elective courses with me. A seminar on Sraffian topics, and a course in international economic history.

That course was not chronologically organized. The topics covered emphasized unresolved controversial issues in international economic history, e.g. whether there was an Industrial Revolution, the critique of Eurocentric interpretations of History, and the revival of cultural and geographical explanations for relative backwarderness. One of the most fun courses I ever taught, not just because I basically taught what I wanted, but more importantly because I never learnt as much from my students as I did in that opportunity.

Kirsten's interests were broad, but she had a particular concern with the institutional aspects of economic development, approached from a historical perspective, and that would include the history of ideas. That was very much in line with the institutional/Marxist traditions that already existed in Utah's economics department, and fit with my own work in what might be called the Classical-Keynesian tradition (classical meaning the old classical political economists, including Marx, as interpreted by Sraffa, while Keynesian puts an emphasis on the radical followers of Keynes and Kalecki).

She published early on a paper (in a Brazilian journal called Versus, which I suggested as a venue; accessible version here) that was based on a previous one done in a development course with Nilüfer Çağatay. It was a critique of the New Institutionalism of Douglas North, and a discussion of the Veblenian, or Old Institutionalist roots in the radical development economics of Ha-Joon Chang. She also published, with Bill McColloch, one of her colleagues in the graduate program, a paper on the Journal of Economic Issues on the methodological compatibility between Marx and Veblen (working paper version available here), influenced by Hunt's views on the topic, to some extent.

Kirsten also collaborated with me, and Nathaniel Cline, another graduate student at the U, on a paper on the persistence of mainstream policy advice, even after the crisis of the marginalist paradigm in the 1970s, in which we hinted that a real world economic crisis, like the Global Recession of 2008, was an unlikely cause for significant changes in the direction of research, which was published in the Journal of Philosophical Economics (see here). Kirsten was particularly interested in the role of the IMF as a the institutional instrument by which conservative policies were maintained in developing countries. Further research on the lack of change in the IMF policy positions that she conducted will be published later this year in Development and Change.

She was also interested in the role of institutionalist authors during the New Deal, and helped me to do research on Marriner Eccles papers at Marriott Library. We had a project of publishing some of Eccles speeches as the chairperson of the Fed.

Kirsten was extremely generous in her intellectual exchanges, unwilling to take her contributions as exclusively her own, and sharing them as part of the knowledge of the group. Surprisingly that's not common among the heterodox tribe, in which pride and the desire for prominence often lead to fratricidal disputes. She was also generous with her time, dedicating immense amounts of it to organize the Heterodox Economics Student Association (HESA), and making the economics department better for other graduate students, and to her classes and her students. Economics as a profession is a little bit better because of her work.


  1. I was impressed with the pieces by her that I've read (you've posted a few before over the past few years). Your appreciation seems well deserved. It's saddening to learn that she's no longer with us.



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