Sunday, July 16, 2017

More On Larry Summers Distorting Intellectual History

I would have included what follows in the previous post, but was afraid of putting too much into one post.  So, a bit more.

Here is the precise quote from Summers's talk about the conversation between Ken Arrow and Paul Samuelson on the evening of the celebration in 1972 in Cambridge, MA.

"Almost everybody left and Paul and Kenneth were discussing turnpike theorems.  Kenneth was discussing aspects of Pontryagin's maximum principle.  Paul was discussing how stupid  Joan Robinson was."

So somehow Larry Summers thought that it was appropriate at this ultimate commemoration of Ken Arrow at the Tel Aviv Institute for Advanced Studies to pull out of what was reported to be a very long discussion that had their wives getting quite impatient, and which Larry himself noted was, well, the two Nobel prize winners in the room going on and on as I am sure they did about all sorts of matters, many of them highly mathematical, that Larry decided to quote as the one contribution by his other uncle, Paul Samuelson, this snide remark about Joan Robinson, which looks pretty ridiculous and hypocritical in light of his humiliating admission only six years earlier that this "stupid" Joan Robinson had been right and he had been wrong.

Let me add some not so well known further weird details about all this.  The first is that after Paul Samuelson walked down Mass Ave from Harvard to MIT after the anti-Semites at Harvard refused to hire him there, in the first year that he was in charge of admitting potential grad students at MIT he rejected his future quasi-brother-in-law* for admission to the grad program, yes, rejecting Kenneth J. Arrow, right up there in stupid decisions along with approving of that incorrect paper on the surrogate production function by various of his grad students in the QJE that led him to  confess about the "foundations of sand" upon which economics is supposedly based.  (Among those accepted in that class instead of Arrow was Lawrence Klein, a future Nobel Prize winner and Samuelson's first PhD student.)

Yeah, pretty embarrassing. As it was in the end, Samuelson was more worried about Arrow-Debreu(-McKenzie) general equilibrium theory, which he did not do, than he was about Robinson and the Cambridge capital theory controversies, and so he hired Duncan Foley, who got his PhD from Herbert Scarf at Yale, to come to MIT and help him teach grad micro  theory there. Duncan did  that, later going to Stanford and falling into heterodox Marxist sin and not getting tenure there. But Samuelson got his  new orthodoxy, which was taught to  people like Krugman and Akerlof and Varian, and  others, establishing neoclassical orthodoxy, although it still lacked game theory.

Regarding Arrow and the Cambridge capital theory debates, to the best of my knowledge, he never said a word about them.  He coauthored a famous book on general equilibrium with Frank Hahn in 1971, with Hahn playing a defender of neoclassical theory, although granting much to the Robinson crowd.  That Samuelson's defense was to retreat to heterogeneous capital being the true way to go is ultimately profoundly ironic, given that he rejected his future quasi-brother-in-law for entrance to MIT's grad program, the general equilibrium guy whose model was ultimately totally decentralized..

In any case, Summer's tossed-off quote from Samuelson looks really shameless, aside from being historically seriously intellectually misleading. Why did he do  this?  I do not know, but it is shameful.

*The parents of Lawrence H. Summers both worked at the Philadelphia Fed, with his father also at U. Penn, and the inventor of the concept of PPP international measurements. His mother,Anita, was the sister of Kenneth J. Arrow, and his father the brother of Paul A. Samuelson.  His father, Robert changed the name from Sanuelson to Summers in an effort to avoid anti-Semitism when he arrived in the US .  Robert kept it, but Paul decided to retrieve the original name, which is why Larry is Summers rather than Samuelson.

Barkley Rosser


Jerry Brown said...

I always thought that economists, even the very famous ones- deep down somewhere- were sort of human. Your post confirms that. Thank you :)

ProGrowthLiberal said...

Didn’t Harvard also turn down James Tobin preferring to hire James Duesenberry? Another short sighted decision. said...

Thanks, Jerry.

Not sure about that one, pgl. I only very recently learned about this business with Samuuelson turning Arrow down. I have a feeling that if not then, later Samuelson was a bit jealous of Arrow, who was generally considered to be the better at math of the two, with Samuelson very much playing the game of the guy who mathematized standard neoclassical economics. He also had a thing about von Neumann, who was certainly better in math than he was, recounting a story in his Nobel address about how when von Neumann gave a talk about the special nature of the math involved in proving equiibrium (fixed point theorems, JvN was the first to do it), Samuelson had challenged him, and JvN bet him a cigar, which PAS said in his Nobel address that he deserved at least half of the cigar. As it was, Samuelson was once quoted as saying that the late Thomas Schelling, was about the same age as Arrow and died only a few months before Arrow did, was the smartest person he ever know, although Schelling was much less good at math than Samuelson.