Friday, January 6, 2023

Herb Gintis, 1940-2023

My dissertation chair, Herb Gintis, died yesterday in Northampton, Mass.  We didn’t stay in touch after I graduated—our interests and perspectives diverged—but I will always appreciate what he gave of himself at a difficult time in my life.

After my first dissertation went awry (don’t ask!), Herb, who had been on my committee, stepped in and helped me identify a new topic.  I had to learn a new set of tools, and he was patient as I stumbled through what I now recognize as elementary technical hurdles.  He even watched my kid on a couple of occasions, so I could have a few hours of freedom.  I’ve heard dissertation advisors don’t always do this!

I confess that our final session together was rocky.  At my dissertation defense I attacked my own work, and it was Herb who defended it.  He even had to convince me to publish the game theoretic modeling in a journal—I had become so embarrassed by it.  It was a terrible closure to a relationship for which I remain deeply grateful.  In recent years I had thought about contacting him again just to let him know how much his generosity meant to me, but I delayed....and now it’s too late.

So I’m taking this opportunity to say that, although Herb could be crusty—he had a reputation for this—he was also a true mensch.  He had an open mind and bottomless curiosity.  He rose to the top ranks in a field, evolutionary game theory, he didn’t take up seriously until middle age.  His intellectual partnership with Sam Bowles resulted in one of the most productive twosomes in the history of economics.  (Can you name any others?)

Here is Herb’s Wikipedia entry, and here is his website.  An impressive guy.


kevin quinn said...

Hear, Hear!

I didn't know him personally, but I've been relying on Herb and Sam intellectually since grad school. I have been using Sam's Microeconomics (which is of course full of Herb) to teach intermediate micro since it came out. I remember my own mentor, Robin Hahnel, entertaining us with anecdote about Herb confronting Samuelson at Harvard.

Herb was a brilliant economist. My well-worn copy of Game Theory Evolving--chock full of post-it notes and underlinings--has pride of place on my bookshelf. RIP Herb.

Anonymous said...

Please don't take this question the wrong way, I am only curious. I noticed you used the word "mensch". Was Gintis a member of "the tribe"??

Peter Dorman said...

Actually, I'm not sure. If he was Jewish (in addition to the new classification of Jew-ish) he didn't advertise it. I once went to an alternative seder in Northampton that some UMass faculty took part in, and HG wasn't there, but that doesn't mean anything, of course. Others who knew him better on a personal level can chime in here.

Whatever the official ancestry, Herb had a classic Jewish intellectual trait, a desire to discern the hidden patterns behind the observable world, to find the underlying theory. Ricardo was like this too. (When I taught at Evergreen I sometimes trotted out a guest lecture for Jewish Studies courses on Jews and formal theory, with a close look at Ricardo's essay on the invariant standard of value.) And Jewish theoreticians in physics, biology, logic, etc. It's a fascinating topic. said...

Herb was ethnically Ashkenazi Jewish but non-practicing. But he was one heck of a mensch.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, re: the anecdote...please do tell!

kevin quinn said...

Ok, but my memory being what it is, or isn't, I don't want to attribute the story to Robin--in fact, it may have come from someone else. Let's call it apocryphal. As a student, the story goes, a well-herbed Herb, if you catch my drift, interrupted Samuelson's lecture to draw an extended comparison between Utility and excrement. Samuelson, apparently, was not amused!

I'm not a robot!

Anonymous said...

Paul Samuelson finished studies at Harvard and then went to MIT and stayed. The "anecdote" is creepy and mistaken, and likely untrue. There "seems" to have been a lot of resentment at Harvard for the economics faculty at UMass.

Anonymous said...

There "seems" to have been a lot of resentment at Harvard for the economics faculty at UMass. [That resentment seems to be lasting, as far as I can tell.]

kevin quinn said...

Well forget about it -- after further thought, I think the story came from a UMass student. Sorry I brought it up: I certainly didn't mean to take attention away from Peter's tribute, the sentiments of which I share! said...


I think maybe you have UMass Amherst and MIT confused.

I know nothing about this excrement story, although it is quite possible. Herb the mensch did not pull punches.

Regarding Samuelson, what few now realize is that the Ivy League schools up to and through WW II were dominate by snobby Yankee WASP elites, who eere anti-semitic. It was the way it was. SoHarvard was that way while much lower ranked MIT and UMass were not.

Joseph Schumpeter was Samuelson's major prof and got his thesis published Harvard U. Press, the massively influential The Foundations of Economic Analysis, 1947. But Harvard would not hire him, so he just walked down Mass Ave in Cambridge to MIT, and that was that.

By the 70s, anti-semitisim in elite US schools had largely disappeared. Herb would get in trouble for his own punchy remarks.

In 1973 he and Sam Bowls, Stephen Reich, Richard Presnick, and Chris Edwards moved to UMass Amherst as part of a "radical package.' Within a few years this group split over game theory vs Post-modern ecnomiomcs, which may have added to Peter's problems getting done.

Even though they differed in their approaches in various ways, while emphasizing cooperative evolutionary stuff in recent years and getting appointments at the Santa Fe Institute, they continued to lots together.

The parallelisms are striking. Both of them have just over 80,000 google scholar citations, a lot, with lots of thosw from joint publs.

But it occurs to me, thinking about the Samuelson story, socially speaking Sam comees out that Yankee WASP elite. His father was Chester Bowles, gov. of Connecticut and ambassador to India. He sits elegantly dressed, being quite and polite, an interesting contrast to Herb with his hippie clothes and punchy approach to discussion. They were quite complementary, a road show no closed down.

Andres said...

Herb's personal slogan was "I am often wrong, but never in doubt," and he lived up to it; he had an unparalleled ability to provoke eye-rolling and nasty retorts from fellow UMass faculty and graduate students. And he didn't tolerate fuzzy thinking from his students in the one course I took with him. Even if I had been interested in a microeconomics- or game theory-heavy dissertation, the idea of having him on my committee would have been the stuff of nightmares.

One thing I would like to correct Barkley on is that the UMass economics department certainly expanded in various directions, but it only "split" in the sense that there is no "UMass school of economics" parallel to MIT or Chicago. Nor was there ever a plan to create such as school, as far as I can tell. During my time in the department, I was able to observe, even in minor glimpses:

* Rick Wolff and Steve Resnick's much-needed inclusion of philosophical introspection into Marxian economics (much derided by Herb).
* Herb and Sam's first steps at creating a theory of microeconomics that is completely at odds with Walrasian and other neoclassical unicorn fantasies.
* Post-Keynesian and structuralist macroeconomics as taught by Douglas Vickers, Jim Crotty, Jerry Epstein and Peter Skott.
* Structuralist and dependency theories of economic development as taught by Steve Resnick, Carmen Diana Deere and Mohan Rao.
* Nancy Folbre's ongoing quest to create a feminist economics.
* Jim Boyce combining heterodox political economy and ecological economics.

In short, being in the department in the 1990's was like drinking from a firehose of heterodox economics, and I wish I had been more ready for the experience.

After Steve Resnick, Herb is the second UMass professor I took a course with who has passed away. While I liked Steve better as a person, Herb was certainly more mathematical and rigorous and had an in-small-doses charm of his own. While his colleagues may have been fine wines, Herb was hard tequila, and was one of the more, er, memorable professors I have studied under.

kevin quinn said...

What I loved about Herb and Sam, today and as a grad student in the late 70's at AU, was their ceaseless attempt to translate political economy--to make it contend on the same playing field as neo-classical economics. That meant rejecting those parts of political economy that could not do so -- the labor theory of value, for example. The idea that somehow ideas could not be translated and compared, that, you know, you either side with capital or labor and then "the truth" followed as simply an expression of your political commitments--this was, rightly in my view, anathema to Herb and Sam.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for the expansions and explanations.

I do appreciate the explanation, Mr. Quinn. The "anecdote" made no sense to me and struck me as unfortunately distasteful.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Rosser:

"I think maybe you have UMass Amherst and MIT confused."

Assuredly not, but thank you for the fine explanation.

Anonymous said...

I guess this is a few days belated in one person's case, but thanks to Professor Dorman and Professor Rosser for the replies. Both of the replies were edifying to me. Although I am very much an outsider to the scholarly crowd, there was something about Mr. Gintis's writing that had made me think he was Jewish. Maybe some passing comments he had made about Israel (none of them negative I don't think, just observations on Israeli society).

I am a Goy/Goyim myself (about two standard deviations below the average Jew in intelligence). but kind of a "Judeo-phile" for lack of a better term. BTW, I got your new meaning of "Jew-ish" reference. The Santos Lie. I thought Sam Seder's take on it was pretty good, He said it should be "Jew-ie". Seemed like a better way to express, what EITHER WAY, to me, (I'm guessing you agree) struck me as an offensive lie by Mr. Santos.

Again thanks for the gracious/thorough reply. G*d bless.