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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Economics Professor Meir Kohn

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Meir Kohn1.jpgMeir Kohn is a Professor of Economics at the College, where he has taught for 37 years. As a researcher, he has a background in mathematics and an interest in history, but is perhaps best known on campus for his star turn as the long time teacher of an essential class on the financial markets.

Kohn sometimes tells his students that his journey was much like that of Forrest Gump, with twists and turns that eventually landed him in Hanover. Born in the Czech Republic, Kohn moved as a baby to the U.K. He graduated high school a year early, then moved to Israel and took up life on a kibbutz, a commune-like settlement (a fact that somewhat belies his eventual stance as a libertarian). Kohn attended Hebrew University with the intention of studying biology, but he lost interest in that subject and switched to agricultural economics.

After obtaining Bachelors and Masters degrees at Hebrew University, Kohn came to the U.S. for the first time to earn his Ph.D. at MIT. He planned to get his degree in operations research, a quantitative application of advanced analytical methods. Instead, he focused on economic theory. He returned to Israel to teach for six years. While there, he helped develop the “cash-in-advance” theory to explain why consumers need to hold on to money.

In 1979 Kohn joined the faculty at Dartmouth, where he continued his work on economic and monetary theory. But by the mid-nineties he was dissatisfied with what he calls the “sterile” environment of economics research that seemed to him little more than a mathematics branch of philosophy, creating and analyzing imaginary models of the world. Kohn began to look instead at what lessons could be drawn from economy history.

His main focus since then has been learning from pre-industrial Europe and deciphering why economic progress happens in some places rather than others, a theme he has explored in multiple papers. Rather than see economics as no more than production and the trade between producers, Kohn created a model from the historical data that has three parts: production (the actual physical creation), commerce (buying and selling what others produce), and finally, predation (where a person or group takes by force what others produce). The interaction of these three activities — and specifically the combination of production and commerce while preventing predation — is what leads to economic progress. Governments in this model are often necessary at the local level, but they are a hindrance as societies scale.

This framework, which Kohn has since tested further on data from pre-industrial China, is codified in his upcoming book, The Origins of Western Economic Success. You can read his work-in-progress manuscript in its entirety here (Kohn is continuing to revise and edit it), or take in the (somewhat) shorter version of his analysis here.

Meanwhile Kohn has become a star in the Economics department with the course he teaches four times a year: Econ 26, The Economics of Financial Intermediaries and Markets. In 2000 his notes for this class were turned into a textbook, Financial Institutions and Markets. After the book’s publication, Kohn realized he could dispense with formal lectures that both he and his students found redundant, and he completely switched the course format over to the Socratic Method.

Econ 26 is now a beloved and feared rite of passage for economics majors with dreams of working on Wall Street. Students participating in corporate recruiting trade stories with their alumni recruiters about the rapid-fire conversational method Kohn employs, keeping students on their toes. Twenty percent of each student’s grade is based on class participation, and Kohn sees himself more as a coach running training drills than as a teacher pushing information at passive students.

In a memorable 2007 opinion column in The Dartmouth, Peter Gray wrote about his experience in the class, saying, “Kohn is the first professor at Dartmouth I have encountered who is perfectly comfortable telling me that I’m wrong, and no less of a feat, in front of the rest of the class.” In 2012, the Alumni Magazine profiled Econ 26. And in this video, Kohn discusses his methods:

Kohn is also one of the founders of the Political Economy Project, which we discussed in our profile of Professor Doug Irwin. Kohn looks forward to re-starting his economic reading group this winter with a group of 10-15 students meeting once a week for an hour to discuss a single book over the course of the term.

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