Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jewish Economists

I just finished reading Janos Kornai’s memoirs (By Force of Thought). I’ll have more to say about it later, but first I want to mention my surprise at finding out that Kornai is yet another Jewish economist. A disproportionate number of economists appear to be Jews. The precise number is undetermined, but I’ll bet if we had a complete data set, we could reject the religion-neutral null at a really low p-value.

This calls out for an explanation. I think we can ignore antisemitic stupidities about Jews and money or conspiracies to control the world’s wealth. There isn’t an obvious political angle either, since Jewish or half-Jewish economists come in all stripes, from Hayek and Friedman to at least two of the contributors to this blog and, of course, Marx himself.

My approach to this is to think about the other fields in which Jews are or have been overrepresented. This appears to include theoretical physics, mathematics and depth psychology, and, in the non-academic universe, top-level chess. On the other hand, one does not see this tilt in natural history, chemistry or experimental psychology. (I could be completely wrong about these estimates; I have no actual data, only a few scattered bits of knowledge.) A valid explanation should apply to all of these, shouldn’t it?

Here is a hypothesis: the fields in which Jews are concentrated tend to be those that look for hidden patterns, as opposed to those which are mainly concerned with describing the visible world more clearly. The reason has to do with the difference between Christian and Jewish cosmology.

The Christian perspective is that the worlds of god and man were bridged initially by Jesus and have remained in communication since then, via either the intermediation of a church or direct introspection by believers. It is enough, according to this perspective, to simply observe, study and follow the path. In particular, nature is said to be an open book, revealing god’s wisdom to all who pay attention.

The Jewish view is nearly the opposite. God issues clear instructions, but the logic that underpins them is beyond understanding. The essential problem is that there is no bridge between the infinite mind of god and the frail, context-bound mind of human beings. We are commanded to comprehend, but comprehension is beyond us. So we read and reread the sacred texts, looking for hidden clues that can bring us a little closer to a knowledge that will ever remain beyond reach. Nature, like the sacred text, is in code, an endless puzzle.

Of course, both Christians and Jews have been extensively secularized, but perhaps this is the point. A deep cultural orientation remains, even as minds turn to worldly problems. Habits of decoding linger on with Jews, who then go into the decoding professions like economics and chess. (A note to non-chessplayers: a professional in this game is someone who is hooked on the question, “What is really happening in this position?”—and has become good at answering it.)

I first glimpsed the outlines of this argument when I read Ricardo’s unpublished essay on “Absolute and Exchangeable Value”. This is a cultural text as much as an economic one, an obsessive peeling away of layers that stands worlds apart from the contented common sense of Adam Smith. And this urge to dig deeper can also be found in Kornai, especially as he documents his thought process during his crucial formative years. The goal remains to discover the true meaning of events, obscured beneath the veil of appearances.

This heightened Jewish presence in the “deep-pattern” fields is transitory. It begins only with the widespread secular assimilation of Jews into mainstream European culture in the nineteenth century, and it is gradually fading away as ancient cultural legacies dissolve, and as disciplines and professions become globalized, increasingly populated by people from countries beyond the Christian/Jewish dichotomy.


Jack said...

Hmm, me thinks the blade of Occam's Razor needs be applied to your thesis. First, I'd look to age as a factor. Are the greater number of Jewish economists (and other scientists) older than the average? Is the age of Jewish intellectual accomplishment past us, in favor of an age of Jewish professional and material accomplishment.

And what of orthodoxy? What is the relative degree of belief of these many Jewish intellectuals?
Was Marx a practicing Jew? Freud? Einstein? What many people fail to recognize is that being Jewish through the 20th century, and this may be changing, was as much an ethnic identity as it was a religious identity. And an important part of that ethnicity was intellectual accomplishment, revered by a group that had often been denied access to the corporate world. Religion is not the defining factor, but the ethnic aspect is likely to be a result of the religious identity assigned to Jews by the outside world.

Bruce Webb said...

Medieval Catholic Scholastics were smart. My God there are still how programs of thought attributed to Acquinas. And Alselm. Descartes was no dummy and neither was Newton. And if we had to cast back to the granddaddy of them all we would have Aristotle.

Cultures that honor scholarship as Athens did
, asChina in most dynasties, as Jews did forever, and as Catholics did in the Middle Midlle Ages advance knowledge. When they reverse that they don't.

Enlightenment. Not just good for Jefferson and Copernicus.

abb1 said...

Right, and it's a good thing that Comrade Stalin had warned us against "textualists and Talmudists" who "quote mechanically without delving into the essence of the matter, and apart from historical conditions".

Joking, joking...

Shag from Brookline said...

"That's funny, you don't look like an economist."

Robert D Feinman said...

There is a tradition of Jewish disputation, just look at the layers of commentary on the Talmud.
Wikipedia has a nice image as part of this article showing how this is even shown typographically.

In the Catholic church disagreements, even by laymen, could get you burned at the stake or invited to a visit by the Inquisition. One would think that this would stifle speculative thoughts over the centuries.

The most notable example of punishment by the Jewish community was Spinoza, who was "excommunicated", even though there is no such formal procedure. A recent book on him claims it was a political move to placate the Dutch authorities that the Jews didn't want to antagonize. It doesn't seem to have affected his work, but may have had some adverse effects on his matrimonial prospects.

Contrast that with Galileo, whose questioning was much less of a challenge than Spinoza's to supernaturalism.

abb1 said...

It is a bit excessively formalistic, rationalistic, and platonic though, isn't it; that whole 'cosmology', I mean.

And that can be a bit of a problem sometimes, can't it.

Too much rationalism, not enough humanism. said...

I have not tracked the numbers, but I think Jack might be right, although this may be partly simply a matter of Jews becoming a smaller percentage of the population over time. My (Jewish) major professor, Eugene Smolensky, used to wisecrack that a third of the AEA members were Jewish, although I think he was probably exaggerating. Certainly it is far less than that today.

Even more interesting is the concentration at the top. I think a majority of the econ Nobelists in the first ten years after the prize was established were Jewish. That has declined some I think, but it is still a high percentage, and it may still be a majority over any multiple year period.

Of course a simpler explanation for all this is the fact that Jews are documented to have higher IQs than most other groups, although one can of course endlessly argue over why that is. There is also for the economics link, the old stereotype of Jews being involved with moneylending and other financial activities, which might make them more prone to being good at economics.

BTW, while I am not Jewish, many people have thought that I was, more so when I was younger. Not only did I tend to hang out with lots of Jews, but I had curly hair (now mostly straight, what is left of it), a somewhat beaky nose (still there), and used to talk even faster than I do now, and I retain my tendency to disputatiousness, :-).

Regarding the role of Jews in the history of world thought, there is an old joke. So, the question is "what is the most important part of the human body?" Moses points to the head; Jesus points to the heart; Marx points to the stomach, Freud, points to the genitals, and Einstein waves his hands all around and says, 'it is all relative.'"

Peter Dorman said...

I think people have been missing the point. I am not claiming that Jews are more intellectually prominent in a general sense, but that certain fields, including economics, are disproportionately Jewish. Compare the Nobelists in econ to those in chemistry; presumably both kinds of achievements require very high intelligence. My understanding is that there is a significant difference between them in the proportion of Jewish laureates. I'm proposing a hypothesis to explain it; what other hypotheses are out there?

I can adduce other examples. Consider, for instance, the extent of Jewish presence in "old institutionalism" compared to other schools of economics. According to my hypothesis, we would expect to see fewer of them, since OIE is largely descriptive.

It should go without saying that I am making no claims for the superiority of one approach or the other. I admire Ricardo greatly, but if I had two policy advisers, Smith and Ricardo, I would listen a lot more to Smith.

abb1 said...

The IQ difference could also be explained by cultural reproduction, reproduction of the the culture with stronger emphasis on rationalism than other cultures. It's a blessing and a curse.

JB said...

Friedrich von Hayek (1974) is here, as elsewhere, misidentified as being Jewish. While he was the cousin of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and was involved with von Mises (who was Jewish) in leading the heavily Jewish Austrian School of economics, and was closely involved with the Jewish intelligensia in Vienna, in Hayek on Hayek, Hayek states he was unable to find any Jewish ancestors through genealogical research (p. 53) .

Peter Dorman said...

JB: Thanks for the correction. I was relying on my (dim) memory of the book Wittgenstein's Poker. I may have gotten it wrong. If so, substitute Aaron Director for Hayek in the catalog of conservative Jewish economists. Or von Mises, for that matter.

Jack said...

Just a thought Peter, but it occurs to me that if we start with Feinman's point regarding the disputatious inclination of the Jewish intelligentsia we see immediately why economics becomes a comfortable niche. In what other field of study can one argue endlessly over the most arcane trivia and safely assume that no position can be proved to be untenable? In a world where few things are said to be certain beyond death and taxes the economist can take half of that certainty and debate its realty unendingly. Here the Jewish intellectual of a particularly disputative nature can wallow in the certainty of doubt. In a segment of the scientific world absent of definitive fact all ideas are supportable through the establishment of assumptive conclusions leading to definitive theory. Alan Greenspan is our hero. Milton Friedman is our god. Richard Posner is our guiding light. Mein seide is turning over in his grave.

gordon said...

After Gaza, anti-Semitism can no longer be called stupid.

Jack said...

Given that the Jews and the Arabs are both of the Semitic class it is impossible to avoid anti-Semitism in the middle-east. It is not so much a question of stupidity or not. It's just the result of a bunch of Semites living on, and fighting over, the same piece of dirt. They're all anti-one another. Solution: Let all who want to fight it out meet some where in the Sinai, as remote from human habitation as possible.
Arm them all with sticks and rocks and let them all have a go at it. Those in the surrounding area who are truly tired of the madness that we call the middle-east just stay put until the idiots have all beat each others' brains to pulp. Sticks only mind you, so that only the truly war like will participate. No one gets to hide behind a gun or a remote missile.

Semite:a member of any of various ancient and modern peoples originating in southwestern Asia, including the Akkadians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs.

Barkley Rosser said...


A very unfortunate remark on your part. Quite aside from Jack's completely valid point that "Semites" refers to both Jews and Arabs, there are large numbers of Jews who have strongly criticized Israeli policies for a long time. Are they deserving of being despised on grounds of being Jewish (or "Semitic")? Just garbage on your part.

Jack said...

Now Barkley, let's not be too harsh in our critique of Gordon's point of view. He simply suffers from the myopic character of human observation. He sees the world in accordance with his well established understanding of what that world is supposed to be. It is not his probably liberal ideological bent of
mind that is the operative factor here. It is more likely the fact that he is a typical human being with all the incompetencies that are endemic to the group.

gordon said...

Here we go…

Jack, much more realistic than your “sticks and rocks” scenario would be a multilateral peacekeeping force along the lines of KFOR in Kosovo, maybe together with a tribunal like the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. It is urgently, desperately needed to separate the warring sides, but Mearsheimer and Walt have explained to us why it will never happen. And as for being a “typical human being”, are you perhaps a robot or visitor from another planet without any “incompetencies”?

Barkley Rosser, we both know what anti-Semitism means, so let’s not split hairs. I have no doubt that you are acquainted with some “good Jews”, but what are they going to do about the other sort? About as much, I suspect, as “good Germans” could do about the Nazis. As long as the situation Mearsheimer and Walt describe exists, anti-Semitism isn’t stupid. said...


Maybe not utterly stupid if you are a Palestinian living in Gaza, but still as morally reprehensible as it has ever been.

Jack said...

Your thesis falls down due to a simple exercise in logic. Nearly all Israelis are Jews, but nearly all Jews are not Israelis. Yes, Israel lays its territorial claims in Palestine to Biblical references and, thereby, makes it the equivalent of an Islamic jihad. It is still an Israeli problem, not a Jewish one. The Israelis may be using religion as their excuse for territorial expansion, but that is little different from the rationales used by Islamists. They certainly seem to be birds of a feather in so many ways. The Palestinians have the Arab world on their side, while the Israelis have the US and England to support them. Where is it all to end?

Jack said...

Gordon: "Jack, much more realistic than your “sticks and rocks” scenario would be a multilateral peacekeeping force along the lines of KFOR in Kosovo,...."

More realistic? While my approach may seem a bit archaic it does suit the temperaments of the people involved, on both sides. Your peacekeeping plan on the other hand has been seeking a beginning for the past sixty years with no fruition in sight. My plan, on the other hand, if it should result in a lasting peace has the additional benefit of selectively weeding out the barbarians instigating both sides of the issue.

Jack said...

Hey Gordon,
Sorry, but I'm a bit lost in the wilderness. How the devil did we go from a discussion concerning Jewish intellectualism and intelligentsia to the madness in the middle-east? While the Israelis may have some hi-tech accomplishments, Israel is not exactly a hot bed of intellectual growth.

gordon said...

Jack, you can’t separate Jews and Israelis as easily as that given that Jews in other countries actively work to organise benefits to Israel and to cut off criticism. See the M. & W. article I linked to above. You might also like to look at this website got together by people supporting Prof. W. Robinson at UC, who may be sued by an organisation he calls “a mouthpiece for the Israeli Government” for his teaching in relation to Gaza.

We got here because I challenged the remark in the post about “antisemitic stupidities”.

Berkley Rosser, you don’t have to be a Palestinian living in Gaza for anti-Semitism not to be stupid. You could also be a citizen of a State like the US which finds its policies twisted and suborned by people whose loyalties are at least divided. You don’t have to be stupid to dislike such individuals. You can dislike them quite rationally for the false and morally insupportable position into which they have led your country.

abb1 said...

Um, Gordon, isn't what you're talking about called anti-Zionism? Anti-Semitism is a form of racial prejudice; how can it not be stupid and counterproductive in Gaza or US and anywhere at all?

Peter Dorman said...

For the record: antisemitism is stupid. When Israel claims to act on behalf of all Jews it is dishonest in a crass, self-serving way. When anyone outside of Israel parrots this line, positively or negatively, without giving it critical scrutiny, they are further propagating dishonesty.

As a matter of elementary fact, there are Jews who support the Israeli actions in Gaza, Jews who oppose it, and Jews who, like many non-Jews, hardly pay attention. Jews have a special obligation to speak out only to the extent (which, alas, is often minimal) that they have more than the ordinary potential to influence despicable policies. But the same could be said for non-Jews who might have extra influence, like editorial writers or high rollers who finance political parties. There is no Jewish obligation to act apart from that -- certainly not any obligation based simply on being born Jewish. Similarly, I deny any particular responsibility for evil actions committed by those who have the name "Dorman", or who are economists, or who may even share my views on the role of critical tests in research design.

K Ackermann said...

I'm under the impression that there is a noticible difference in the measured IQ of Jews vs. non-Jews. It's a few points, but that can have a large cumulative effect.

Much more subtle, but I believe very significant is 2 things:

1 - the Jewish religion emphasizes that Jews are to look after other Jews. When one strays, they all stray.

2 - Culturally, Jews are expected to succeed, and this has translated to noble endeavors, not just business or wealth.

Everything I am saying here, I am sure is controversial. I'm not Jewish, so please forgive innaccuracies.

However, the two things mentioned above can have a very powerful cumulative effect. The emphasis to succeed can lead to things like good grades early on.

Good grades, coupled with looking out for one another, can translate into ensuring that funds are available for higher education.

Also, it is possible that there are subconscious biases where an influential Jewish person may extend more opertunity to another Jew vs a non-Jew.

This would be a perfectly natural reflex in anyone who strongly identifies with a culture. Others who share the same culture may get more consideration, especially if that culture included a common suffering component.

It's worth thinking about.

Jack said...

As I had said at the very top of this conversation:
"but the ethnic aspect is likely to be a result of the religious identity assigned to Jews by the outside world."

There is a long standing sociological concept referred to as the "looking glass sel." It goes something like, I am what I think that you think I am.

Our entire lives, especially in its earliest phases are A constant reassessment of who we are. If we are impressed by how others in our environment view us we have a tendency to be more like that image. Jews are often ween by the rest of the world as though they were a unified group. They are not, but the world rest of the world keeps saying that they are, and every Jew comes to feel the influence of that perception. The effect on each is, however, different and unpredictable. There is one distinctive difference between Jews. Some are jewish by religion and others are only ethnically jewish. Dorman is certainly correct also when he warns against confusing being a Jew and being a zionist. They are not mutually inclusive.

gordon said...

Peter Dorman, Israel may claim to act on behalf of all Jews, but that isn’t the same as US Jews (or Jews in other countries outside of Israel) acting on behalf of Israel. That is what I thought we were discussing.

In a situation where, as M.&W. describe, the leadership of US Jewry regularly acts on behalf of Israel to the detriment of both US interests and common humanity, other Jews may speak out against such acts. But if they don’t, an observer is entitled to conclude that they support those acts. As a matter of fact, Jewish influence in the US is exerted overwhelmingly in support of Israel. I think your interpretation that individual Jews who aren’t influential are excused responsibility is pretty unrealistic. You may as well say that Jewish organisations aren't really Jewish, or that they have been taken over by unrepresentative cliques. I'm not aware that anybody has ever seriously made such suggestions.

Try an analogy to see if this makes it clearer. When an Afghan wedding is bombed by US forces, is it realistic to expect the survivors to say: “Oh, dear, we have been bombed by an unrepresentative but well-organised and well-funded clique which has got control of the US Govt., but we don’t blame the American people”? I don’t think so. They will say “The Americans bombed us”, and in the absence of a widespread movement in the US to stop such acts, they will be right. It is equally right to say that “US Jewry supports Israel”, and to draw appropriate conclusions about blame.

But I’m glad to agree with you that the leadership of US Jewry (AIPAC, for example, or the people threatening to sue Prof. Robinson (see comment above)) do deserve condemnation. And that’s a start.

Jack said...

"It is equally right to say that “US Jewry supports Israel”, and to draw appropriate conclusions about blame.'
The victims, in this case Palestinians, may very well be understood to draw that conclusion.
After that only the ignorant would be expected to uphold such a conclusion. It is erroneous to include all members of any ethnic group for the transgressions of some of that group. That is what makes the conclusion prejudicial. Focus on the actual guilty individuals. Call attention to their misdeeds. Describe them in any pejorative manner that you see fit. But differentiate between members of a group whose membership has been predetermined and far from definitive. Would you include Chomsky in your group of guilty jews? I can think of few other Americans who have written more passionately about the "crimes" of zionists and the inequitable behavior of too many Israelis. When Israelis and Palestinians stop perceiving each other as a monolithic enemy they may be able to find their peace. Not before that.