The Man Who Succeeded Gerschenkron

Anyone who hasn’t read The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World, Nicholas Dawidoff’s account of the life of Alexander Gerschenkron, the great 20th-century scholar of economic development, is missing a good thing.

Anyone who doesn’t know about Daron Acemoglu is missing a good thing, too.

There will be many fewer of the latter now, since Acemoglu last week was named winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded every two years to the American economist under 40 judged to have made the greatest contribution to economics. Acemoglu is the man who, for all practical purposes, has become the Gerschenkron of present-day economics.

The process by which this succession of scholarship takes place was described a few years ago by David Kreps (himself a Clark medalist in 1989) in an article, “Economics — the Current Position,” in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

For the hundred years or so before World War II, wrote Kreps, economics had been a decentralized discipline, organized around a common core but with many topical concerns –labor markets, international trade, industrial organization, money and banking, public finance, development and so on.  These shared a certain amount of vocabulary, but otherwise concentrated mainly on developing typologies and describing institutions.

“There were, if you will, a number of regional dialects of ‘Economese,’ dialects that were close to being distinct languages,” he wrote.

Mathematization conquered the core of economics in the years before, during and after World War II. Then, both because of the power of formal reasoning and the prestige they conferred, those who espoused formal methods tackled the applied fields, one after the other. The mathematizers were not welcomed like so many liberators; acceptance was often grudging.

Moreover, as mathematical technique was brought to bear, a reduction in detail took place. New insights were more easily transferred from field to field; new tools could be deployed quickly. But the study of institutions, which before mathematization had loomed so large, gradually was eclipsed.

“The new dominant dialect of mathematical economics lacked some topically important vocabulary,” wrote Kreps; “rather than speak in an unfashionable dialect, some things were just not discussed.”

Hence the image of an hourglass that had been suggested by his colleague Paul Romer, with the scope or breadth of topical economics (on the horizontal axis), plotted against  time (on the vertical axis). As the language of economics is unified, a dramatic narrowing of topical concerns takes place — followed in turn by a commensurate widening, as speakers of the language learn to tackle topics that they had been temporarily unable to address. Kreps ventured in 1997, “É[T]he field now seems to be returning to something like the breadth  of the discipline before World War II.”

Dawidoff’s book about his grandfather chronicles the life of a scholar lived in the first half of the hourglass — the period of the narrowing of the subject. It is difficult to exaggerate the merits of his tale. His previous book, about one-time major-leaguer Moe Berg, The Catcher was a Spy, exhibits the same story-telling grace and sympathy, but here Dawidoff is writing about an altogether bigger man, and his grandfather, to boot.

“My grandfather was said to know all about everything,” he writes. “German historiography, the emigration theory in Romanian history, the complexities of infinitely divisible time.  He understood Kant, Chekhov, Aristotle and Schopenhauer better than people teaching them at Harvard for a living, and had once critiqued Vladimir Nabokov with such brio that the novelist retaliated by lampooning him in his next book.

“Even his vacations were erudite. He spent a pleasant summer with my grandmothers examining one hundred translations of Hamlet’s quatrain to Ophelia, ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire,’ in languages ranging from Catalan to Icelandic to Serbo-Croatian to Bulgarian — all as preparation for an essay in which they argued that translation inevitably distorts meaning.”

Dawidoff traces Gerschenkron’s flight from the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine to Vienna, and from the Nazis to Berkeley, California, where wrote, translated and worked in the shipyards for a time. By 1944, he had found his way to the Federal Reserve Board in Washington D.C., and then, in 1946, as professor of economic history, to Harvard.

Gerschenkron arrived in Cambridge just as mathematization was beginning to sweep the profession, emanating from the department in the institution at the other end of town — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (He and Paul Samuelson immediately became fast friends.) He had one big idea, and he made the most of it:  the advantages of backwardness in economic development.

Thorstein Veblen had said as much in telegraphic form in 1915 in Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution:  late-adopters could sometimes move out to the frontiers of development more easily than the pioneers of the industrial revolution. Gerschenkron now made various forms of slow economic development his specialty.  He himself, with his late start, having had to learn to work in two new languages as an adult, exemplified the possibilities. “The more backward a country,” he wrote, “the more complex and exciting its industrial history.”

The great thing about The Fly Swatter — the title refers to the arsenal of swatters Gerschenkron kept on the porch of his country home in New Hampshire and the enthusiasm with which he wielded them, certain “that each swatter had its own particular entomicidal capabilities” — is that the author talked to nearly everyone still living who had known his grandfather, and everyone talked back.  In Dawidoff’s book you see whole the career of a great professor in a great university, not just a handful of insights and a few arguments, but everything the man lived — the rivalries (Walt Whitman Rostow his longtime bte noire), the battles with his critics (Yale’s William Parker said, “The resounding theses of Gerschenkron tell the size and shape and weave of the stockings the family hangs out on Christmas eve, but say nothing of when or why Santa Claus comes down the chimney”), the relationships with  his remarkable students (“he was an armed man; he could hurt you,” remarked D.N. McCloskey), the continual stream of acts of familyship, friendship, citizenship.    

And now all this glorious humanism is to be passed on, reduced, by dint of having passed through a metaphorical hourglass, to an applied economist with a knack for manipulating a handful of instrumental variables?

Not exactly.   But when Dawidoff writes, “Fifty years after Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspectives was published, there is no new model, and scholars are still tilting at [Gershenkron’s],” he is mistaken.

Daron Acemoglu’s good fortune was to graduate from the University of York at the very moment that the hourglass of development economics was at its narrowest, when all the complications of economic growth had been briefly reduced to an argument about the causes of  “technical change.”

Like Gerschenkron, Acemoglu had been raised in a developing society — in Istanbul, a Turk of Armenian descent. His father was a professor of law, later an attorney for banks and corporations. Political economy and development strategy came naturally to the dinner table.

But his parents died when Acemoglu was in his teens. Political science at York disappointed him; he switched to economics instead. And when MIT admitted him to graduate school but failed to offer a scholarship, he did his doctorate at the London School of Economics instead, writing a dissertation on a variety of labor and macroeconomic topics.  A year later, MIT hired him to teach — an intriguing but unknown quantity at whom they wanted a closer look. Four years later they gave him tenure. He added dual citizenship as well.

The committee that gave the 38-year-old Acemoglu the Clark medal last week described him as “extremely broad and productive,” noting that in the course of a dozen years he had made significant contributions to the study of labor markets before moving on to “especially innovative” ideas about the role of institutions in development and political economy.

In fact, it was a series of investigations in the history of the European colonization of much of the rest of the world, beginning in the 15th century, that made Acemoglu’s reputation, demonstrating that institutions of various sorts were more important to development than economists previously had thought.  The “rules of the game” — the structure of property rights, the presence of markets, and their various frictions, the form that governments take — are key determinants of what happens next, Acemoglu showed, in some unusually inventive and convincing ways.

Take the rise of Europe in the first place.  The importance of the Atlantic trade had long been noted, and various reasons for it advanced.  With Simon Johnson of MIT’s Sloan School and James Robinson of the University of California at Berkeley, Acemoglu argued in “The Rise of Europe: Atlantic Trade, Institutional Change and Economic Growth” that England and the Netherlands leapt out front because a newly emergent merchant class benefited most from trade — and was able to successfully demand institutions to protect their property and commerce.  In contrast, although they had been the first to discover the richest lands, Spain and Portugal stagnated because their monarchies had managed to capture the early returns, they argued — and thus were able to thwart their merchants’ drive for power.

In “Economic Backwardness in Political Perspective,” Acemoglu and Robinson argued that political elites can be expected to pursue “blocking” strategies when innovation threatens their monopolies and when there is little threat to their power from politics. External threats reduced the temptation to block, they found — producing a model that suggested why Britain, German and the United States had industrialized during the 19th century, while the landed aristocracies in Russia and Austria-Hungary sought to hold back the tide.

In “Reversal of Fortune,” Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson argued that colonial powers pursued very different strategies in different lands, with fateful consequences. In rich and densely populated countries such as Mexico and Peru, they extracted wealth; in poor and sparsely settled countries such as British North America and Argentina, they encouraged investment.

And in “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development” they inventively teased evidence from differing mortality rates faced by Europeans in different countries of how the choices made in those circumstanced gave rise to different institutions and so to different development paths.

The Clark committee noted that some of the methods and conclusions were still being debated — but that a broad and substantial rethinking of the development process was underway no matter what.  The appearance this summer of Acemoglu’s book with Robinson, The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy will stimulate much further discussion. The MIT course that he teaches with fellow professor Abhijit Bannerjee on development issues is routinely oversubscribed.  And a long list of projects underway testifies to his staying power.

Thus Acemoglu joins a short list of remarkable economists going back to MIT’s Paul Samuelson, to whom the first Clark medal was awarded in 1947.  The most recent winner, Steven Levitt, of the University of Chicago, recently published, with journalist Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.

Other medalists who recently have been in the news include Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, New York Times columnist and Princeton University economist Paul Krugman, best-selling author Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Harvard economists Martin Feldstein and Andrei Shleifer.