Interview with Professor George Viksnins – 02/01/07
Dr. George J. Viksnins has taught Comparative Economic Systems in the ICPES program for more than 30 years. He is beloved by countless students who affectionately refer to him as “Uncle George.” Viksnins has taught economics at Georgetown University since 1964. He has served as a consultant to the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank and IMF. He received The Fund’s Walter Judd Freedom Award in 2002. In 1992, he began working as a consultant to the National Bank of Latvia, a position that later earned him the Order of the Three Stars, an award given to him by the president of Latvia in 2004. Viksnins and his wife Mara have four children and seven grandchildren. He was interviewed by TFAS Communications Manager Erin Brett.
Q: First, I would like to ask which economists have influenced you the most?
A: My favorite economist is Joseph Schumpeter, a famous Austrian economist who taught for many years at Harvard. I have written some about him, and I have a “famous” lecture where I talked about his career.
He claimed that he had set himself three goals in life: to be the greatest economist in the world, to be the best horseman in all of Austria and the greatest lover in all of Vienna. He said he had reached two of his goals, but he never said which two. He was an economist with a sense of humor.
Q: Have your views on economics evolved over the years?
A: Yes, I think I’ve become more right wing with the passage of time. There is a saying that a man who is not a liberal before age 40 doesn’t have a heart, and anyone who is not a conservative after the age of 50 has no brain.
I sort of went along with that; although I was never a flaming liberal to begin with, but I have become more conservative. Some of the negative views of the media commentators seem to be getting sillier.
Q: What are your thoughts about the way economics is taught for undergraduates? Has it become merely a branch of mathematics?
A: I could talk for three hours on this topic easily. Yes, I think it is a shame that we don¹t really have senior faculty members teaching the basic economics courses and talking about economics and policy and a little bit of history. Many of the younger colleagues know very little about economics or economic history. The only things that they’ve been taught are mathematical proofs.
Since they understand those very well, and some of them are quite challenging, that is what they teach. But there should be an introductory course that, for many students, is going to be the only economics course they will ever take. That introductory course ought to have some value in and of itself, not just be the first step on a movement to an advanced degree in economics.
Q: What is the most important message you are trying to get across in your class?
A: I say at the very beginning that I hope that some of the conservatives in the group, and there are quite a few, develop some compassion and that the liberals in the group develop some common sense. Those two things, compassion and common sense are very useful.
Q: Have you noticed a change in the opinions and views of your students after taking your course?
A: Yes. Most of the time they become a bit more conservative. But I think I can also mention a couple of cases where the students, very bright students, rebelled against too heavy a message and became doctrinaire liberals. In fact, one of them is my godson who became not only a flaming liberal, but also a vegetarian. And I am not by any stretch of the imagination a vegetarian.
Q: How has ICPES changed over the years?
A: It has become a lot more competitive. We have many, many students applying from very, very good schools. When I started, about 30 years ago, many of the students were just coming to get the name Georgetown on their resumes because they were coming from some rather unknown schools. Now we can be much more selective. We also have a more generous budget, so we can offer reasonable amounts of scholarship funding, which we could not do 25 years ago. It makes a difference.
Q: What has kept you interested in ICPES all these years?
A: It’s a challenge to teach because there is a wide variety of intellectual capability as well as backgrounds. At Georgetown, the student body is pretty uniform, pretty homogeneous. Nearly everyone is a very fine student, with good SAT scores, et cetera. If they don’t get it, most of the time it is basically because they are lazy and not willing to work.
With ICPES, you have some students who are economics majors from Ivy League schools. Then, you have people who are in junior colleges who have just completed a year of economics, but that year might not have had much substance to it. I know that I don’t reach all of them, but I at least make an honest effort so I’m not just teaching for the top ten students in the class. But I would say the top 80 or 90 anyway. And that is quite a challenge.
The ICPES staff and the Board are very, very nice people. We see eye to eye in terms of our view of the world. They have been very obliging about doing outreach to parts of Eastern Europe that are of interest to me. Pretty much every year I’ve had a student from Latvia come to the ICPES program, going all the way back to 1989. In fact, that first student turned out to be one of our most distinguished alumni, Ilmars Rimsevics (E 89). He is now the governor of the Latvian Central Bank.
Q: You have been involved in developing the Latvian currency. In fact, I am told there is a video of you explaining the monetary system in a museum of the Bank of Latvia. Tell us about that work.
A: When I got there in 1992 as a consultant paid for by the U.S. government, there was very little knowledge of either banking or monetary policy in the country because the building that the Bank of Latvia inherited had been the branch office of the Moscow Central Bank or the Gosbank as it is called.
So to turn an out-of-the-way office of the Gosbank, a part of the Soviet Central Bank, into a modern, sophisticated central bank took some doing. I especially am proud of the fact that I suggested a way of defining the currency. The Lats was pegged to the special drawing rights (SDR), which is special money invented by the IMF.
And so that particular experiment worked extremely successfully because as the dollar was rising and the Deutschmark was falling, the Lats was floating in between the two.
When that reversed, about seven or eight years ago with the U.S. dollar falling and the euro being introduced and rising, it still meant that the Lats was quite stable. And I take pretty much full credit for having helped them to do that.
The one thing in Latvia that has worked well is currency. Back in the bad old days in the Soviet system, even if you had a suitcase full of rubles, it didn’t make much difference because you may not have been able to buy anything with those rubles unless you had permission from the government, so it was not enough to have the money whereas here, it is enough to have the money.
Q: I hear that poker and tennis are the activities you enjoy. Are these your favorite leisure activities?
A: This table we are sitting at is my poker table, and I also enjoy bridge now. I play bridge nearly every day down at school with a bunch of colleagues, a couple of historians, a mathematician and three or four economists. We sort of rotate in and out at lunchtime. We bring along a brown bag lunch. Instead of having a three-martini lunch, which I guess businessmen sometimes are known to have, we have a brown bag lunch with tomato juice.
I no longer play tennis. In the last couple of years, I’ve had some knee problems. Now, I prefer some swimming and some walking, but no tennis anymore.
Q: How did you come to immigrate to the United States?
A: After World War II we were in refugee camps in Germany for six years. Then it was decided that these refugee camps would eventually close, so the refugees were parceled out to other cities. Many went to Australia, Canada, Venezuela, Chile and some to Brazil and Argentina. But the lucky ones went to the U.S.
There was a special deal if you could find a sponsor who would guarantee that you would not go on welfare right away. Back then, that was pretty serious business. You needed to really come in legally and cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s.
Thank God we came. I was 13 years old then. I went through high school in Philadelphia, college at Temple and received a master’s degree from Penn.
Then, my Ph.D., I earned here (Georgetown University) on a part-time basis because I had gotten married and got more ambition all of a sudden to study.
Q: What are some of the best examples of capitalism that overwhelm people who come to the United States from communist countries?
A: Nowadays things have changed, of course. But when the very first students came to ICPES from communist countries, all you needed to do was to bring them to the Safeway on Wisconsin Avenue to show them the available cheese assortment.
In most Soviet cities, there was one brand of cheese, maybe two. And most of the time, it was all sold out. You had to know somebody, and slip a few rubles under the table. Even rubles they didn’t really want in the last days of the collapsing Soviet Union. A pack of American cigarettes maybe, and they would become your friends for the next several years and save cheese for you.
Q: You are known for your wit in the classroom. What are some of your best-known punch lines?
A: You know that economics is fairly dismal and boring, so I think if you inject a little bit of levity, a little bit of humor, it makes it go down more easily.
I have some standard things that I say about “if your outgo exceeds your income, then your upkeep will be your downfall,” or, “Harry Truman always wanted a one-armed economist, so he couldn’t say, but on the other hand…” You know those kinds of jokes.
Q: You have been an extremely popular professor. To what do you attribute your popularity?
A: I think the students realize that I’m serious about teaching, and that I greatly believe in such things as integrity, and honesty ¬ all those kinds of things that sound a little corny.
But I think the students sense that, and they realize that if they work hard, I would be happy to give them high grades and write recommendations for them.
I think over the years my attitude also has changed somewhat in the way that I interact. Speaking of tennis, my wife and I used to have a standing challenge for the students that any duos could challenge us to a mixed doubles game. Quite a few people on the Board of The Fund were also interested in tennis.
It has been both challenging and rewarding to be part of the growth of The Fund for American Studies and the ICPES program in particular. There is a large group of TFAS alumni that is very dedicated and loyal to the program, and I hope that their positive experience can be duplicated for their kids ¬ and grandkids.