Thursday, December 17, 2009

Samuelson And Academic Anti-Semitism

Paul Samuelson was probably the last of the major economists to experience serious academic anti-Semitism, having experienced Harvard refusing to hire him in 1940 despite his prominence at the time, as well as probably the last one to personally know Keynes, Schumpeter, and Hayek. This put him in a special position to comment on the discussion of their respective anti-Semitisms as studied by Melvin Reder, "The anti-Semitism of some eminent economists," History of Political Economy, 2000, 32, 833-856. In footnote 2 of his "A few remembrances of Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992)," Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Jan. 2009, 69(1), 1-4., Samuelson said the following (noting that Schumpeter was his strongest supporter for being hired at Harvard):

Most of my gifted mentors, born in the nineteenth century, lacked today's 'political (and ethnic) correctness.' There were of course some honorable exceptions among both my Yankee and European teachers. Reder (2000) has provided a useful exploration of such unpleasantries. Central to his expositions were appraisals of the triad John Maynard Keynes, Joseph A. Schumpeter, and Friedrich Hayek on the subject of anti-semitism.

Unexpectedly, I was forced in the end to conclude that Keynes's lifetime profile was the worst of the three. In the record of his letters to wife and other Bloomsbury buddies, Keynes apparently remained in viewpoint much the same as in his Eton essay on the subject as a callow seventeen-year-old. Hayek, I came to realize, seemed to be the one of the three who at least tried to grow beyond his early conditioning. The full record suggests that he did not succeed in fully in cleansing those Augean stables. Still a B grade for effort does trump a C-.

I note a curious irony in that about the same time that Samuelson was not getting hired at Harvard largely due to anti-Semitism (although Schumpeter reportedly alleged that it was due to jealousy of Samuelson's brilliance by his erstwhile peers), Milton Friedman had the same experience at my alma mater, the supposedly progressive University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was not renewed for a position after one year of appointment. No, this was not institutionalist progressives upset about his pro-laissez faire views, which were not particularly public at that time. Rather, the other issues involved besides the evident anti-Semitism on the part of certain supposedly progressive institutionalists was that he was identified as being a mathematically oriented econometrician who thus threatened the institutionalism then dominant in the department. Over two decades later the final victory of policy-oriented econometrics in the department over the old institutionalists would be led by another Jewish econometrician, Arthur Goldberger, who died at 79 on Dec. 11. Just to really tie all this up in a knot, the very worthy and justly eminent Goldberger (whom I knew and admired personally) was a student of Nobelist Lawrence Klein (with many saying he should have shared the Nobel with Klein), who in turn was a student of Samuelson, although it is a famous old wisecrack that "Samuelson never ran a regression in his lifeюЭ


Brenda Rosser said...

Why do I tend to expect better of academics?

There's an interestig paragraph or two on Samuelson in Richard Parker's biography of John Kenneth Galbraith, btw Barkley.

He writes about the (very) effective self-censorship happening in the economics profession in the McCarthy era:

"...For others, the merits of self-censorship had become obvious. Kenneth Arrow who'd ben a Norman Thomas-style democratic socialist in college, in the 1950s "largely abstained from contemporary political involvements." [19] Herbert Simon found harrassment the norm even then, and for years later, Samuelson recalled being actutely aware that "if you were a teacher at many a school around the country and the Board of Regents of your university was on your neck for using subversive textbooks, it was no laughing matter." After a young William F Buckley savaged in in 'God and Man at Yale', he carefully reworked his popular 'Economics' college text more than once:

"My last wish was to have an intransigent formulation that would be read by no one....As a result I followed an Aesopian policy of paying careful attention to every criticism of every line and word of my text....In a sense this careful wording achieved its purpose: at least some of my critics were reduced to complaining that I played peek-a-boo with the reader and didn't come out and declare my true meaning...I reread today, say the fifth edition of the book, with a certain irritation for the care with which many matters are formulated."[20]

Samuelson's textbook contained no more than a few words on American defense spending, and none on its SIZE in relation to the federal budget or its effect on the economy. IN this it was not alone: all the major economic textbooks did the same. [21]...

It's interesting that Samuelson had the same reaction to his writing as I did to his writing 32 years ago.

Economist Michael Hudson, at least, doesn't beat around the bush. AMerica's defense spending in the 1950s and 1960s can fully explain America's persistent balance of payments deficit he says....and much, much greater losses (I might add) that will never be fully quantified nor ever mitigated.

Shag from Brookline said...

I'm not an economist but am interested in the thinking of economists. I am not a fan of Jeff Jacoby, who has had an Op-Ed column in the Boston Globe for years as its resident conservative. But Jacoby's column yesterday (12/16/09) on economists and economics was on target. The problem for Jacoby, however, is that Bush/Cheney economics was not targeted by him over its 8 years as he enabled most of the failed efforts of that administration.

I read all the tributes to Samuelson with great interest. He was very accomplished. But economics is not science, as Jacoby points out - as did E. O. Wilson in Consilience a few years back.

Brenda Rosser said...

Pages 343 and 344 in the hardcover version of 'John Kenneth Galbraith - his life, his politics, his economics' by Richard Parker. First Edition 2005.(Farrar, Stauss and Giroux, New York) said...


A somewhat known tidbit about Samuelson's Principles text is that it was already pre-watered down in its first edition in 1948, although he would water it down further later as the McCarthyite rampage accelerated in the early 1950s. The first attempt at a Principles text incorporating Keynesian ideas was out in 1947 by Lorie Tarshis, but dropped through the cracks like a stone due to it (and him) being viciously attacked for alleged "Marxist socialism."


Well, I have always thought that distinguishing hard and soft sciences was useful, with such things as being able to do controlled experiments something that contributes to hardness. Thus, experimental economics may be more scientific than history of thought, or whatever, and this pattern even holds within the hard sciences themselves, with microbiology preening itself as harder than, say, ecology.

BTW, Wilson is a bit too full of himself. People who hand out lines like his are often out to impose some almost mechanical version of a harder science theory on economics or sociology, as Wilson did with his much reviled attempted "sociobiology." His snide remarks should be seen in the light of the widespread rejection of this attempt by him ("Those naughty people picking on me are not real scientists, boo hoo").

kevin quinn said...

I agree with BR on Wilson. Consilience at one point makes the astonishing and nihilistic claim that Kant's ethics was all wrong because he didn't understand the brain. A 'scientific' ethics? - this is a monstrous misunderstanding of what morality is. said...

Feel I should complete the footnote I quoted, which has a further dig at Keynes.

"Keynes's visceral repugnance would interest future historians less if it never contaminated his intellectual judgments. However, early on, like Bertrand Russell, Keynes did recognize barbaric evils in Lenin's utopia. Strange though that instead of discovering the key role of Georgian Josef Stalin, it was the beastliness of Leon (Lev) Trotsky that Keynes's pen picks on."

Greg said...

There remains zero evidence that Hayek was an anti-semite.

The atmosphere Hayek inhabited was one were the Wittgensteins were both family and close friends of his mother -- and Hayek created several organizations were his friends and intellectual associates were Jews, and Hayek worked to advance their careers and in some cases save their lives.

Samuelson held opoen bigotries against Hayek on ideological grounds -- and worked to undermine Hayek via patent misrepresentations.

Samuelson's whole presentation on Hayek is gross, untrue, and unworthy of a scholar of his standing.