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.