A Trinity of Scholarship: Jesuitism, Philosophy, and Economics

Bill Neenan uniquely and unconventionally integrated scholarship in the Jesuit Order with scholarship in philosophy and scholarship in economics. In the Acknowledgements in his Urban Public Economics (1981:xi) he notes that the Jesuit influence in his “life, as in history and fiction…has been pervasive, at times subtle, at times quite obvious.” Bill Neenan’s research and teaching in urban public economics continuously reflect Bill’s adherence to the missionary and educational service purposes for the founding of the Society of Jesus by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1543. “Everything in three’s,” Bill would say, with a wink.  Bill’s pursuit of Jesuitism, philosophy, and economics training forecast their three influences throughout his work in welfare, education, and urban public economics.

Bill’s education history includes Jesuit Novitiate (1948-50), A.B. Economics (1950-54), Ph.L Philosophy (1955), M.A. Economics (1956), theology studies (1958-63) culminating in S.T.L. (Theology, 1963), and Ph. D. Economics (Michigan 1966). Consistent with tradition, Bill taught Economics at the Jesuit University and high school levels from 1956-58.

A 1950’s Jesuit scholar was more or less ordered by his superiors to apply himself wherever and in whatever occupation the Order required his academic credentials. Diverging from tradition, Bill left Catholic university opportunities to become one of the earliest Jesuits (and earliest Catholic priests of any order) to earn a Ph.D. in Economics from a secular university and, even further, to teach, research, and become tenured in that secular university.

The University of Michigan Department of Economics became Bill Neenan’s academic home first as a doctoral student in 1963 and then during 1966-79 as a faculty member with a joint appointment in the School of Social Work.  Bill may have been attracted to colleagues who performed public service by serving on The Council of Economic Advisors, on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and in cabinet-related roles as Special Technical Advisors to Secretaries of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human services. Such academic activism would have appealed strongly to Bill’s “missionary” perspective.

Bill’s high regard for scholarly collegiality was also well-served in Ann Arbor. The Michigan Economics and related joint-appointment departments were large enough to supply, as co-researchers and reviewers, economists in public finance, urban economics, economics demography, public policy and administration, urban and regional economic development and planning, and labor and industrial relations. At least four of Bill’s research projects included such collaboration.

No memoriam about Bill Neenan as a Professor of Economics would be complete without remembering Bill’s “Rules for Good Living” which he taught his students as thoroughly as he taught urban economics and local public finance. The first of these rules was to “Do good and avoid evil” (Peter I:3(11)).  Bill Neenan’s teaching was combined wittily with aphorisms from his beloved Grandma and Grandpa Neenan.  Indeed, Grandma and Grandpa Neenan are listed in the Index to Bill's Urban Public Economics alongside such stars as Henry Aaron, Paul Samuelson, Richard Musgrave, William Baumol, George Peterson, Charles Tiebout, Edward Gramlich, and Harvey Brazer.

The question from Lyman Abbott (1891) that opens Bill’s Urban Public Economics, “What shall we do with our great cities?” is addressed through all his economic publications from 1956 to 1981.  In his structured economic analysis of the “crisis” of the cities, Bill repeatedly stressed that “The goal of all economic activity is to enhance the economic welfare of consumers; such has been the belief of economists since at least Adam Smith” (Neenan, 1981:198). Welfare economic theory and models require inter-temporal dynamic approaches, in Bill’s view.  No consideration of educational finance and urban public distribution of benefits and costs can properly take a static view.  "Appropriate urban policies must proceed from a feeling of responsibility to those coming after us” (Neenan, 1981:293).

In Bill’s terms, an economist seeking necessarily to “do good and avoid evil” must describe and analyze policy alternatives using economic models and quantitative tools, but then communicate the results and benefits/costs to a lay audience. Bill concludes his book in the spirit of “doing good”” (Neenan, 1981:293), with this normative for public finance economists:

The following norms for evaluating public-sector activities emerge from the previous chapters: (1) provide and finance public services according to the benefit principle, (2) require full compensation for geographic externalities; and (3) assure the equal treatment of equals across metropolitan areas.

Bill Neenan left an indelible pastoral, spiritual, philosophical, and economic imprint upon his undergraduate and graduate students and those fortunate enough to serve as his research assistants.  Recited at his funeral mass at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola July 1, 2014, the following hymn is fitting for this intellectually courageous economist and Jesuit teacher who labored to change for the better the secular world in which he lived:

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,

Bear you on the breath of the dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of his hand.

-Andrea L. Long, PhD Economics