Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 17

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

At MIT I had my initiation into a breathless pace of academic activity that was quite different from the pace I had seen elsewhere until then. The whole place was a dynamo of research activity, you could almost hear the hum and feel the energetic throb of multiple high-powered brains at work. While teaching was an important part of daily activity and it often fed into research, it was research where the main action was. Later I found out this was more or less the case in other top departments in the country, but at MIT I had my first experience. There was the thrill of thriving at the frontier of your subject, you saw the frontier visibly moving from one seminar to another, from one widely-cited journal article to another, you had to run fast even to remain at the same place, and while the competition and the race were invigorating, you could also see the jostling and the occasional hustle.

I was amazed how well-informed people were about who was doing what in which department in the country, who was pushing the (research) boundary where, which young faculty you had to attract before others grab them, what was the going market rate for a particular ‘hot-shot’ scholar, who was having an offer from which top department, and so on. (This reminds me of a phone conversation I had with the Dean of a top east-coast university much later when I joined Berkeley. This Dean wanted to know if I’d be interested in joining his University. Before he went any farther, I told him that I had only recently settled down in Berkeley, both my wife and myself liked the place, and just bought a house, and so I’d not be interested in moving. He talked for a while and then gave up. But before ending the conversation, I think he took pity on me and gave me a bit of ‘personal advice’. He said he could see that I was not yet used to the system in the American academic market. “When somebody offers you a job”, he said, “you don’t say ‘no’ even before I told you the salary I was going to offer you, which I am sure is much higher than what Berkeley is paying you. Even if you are ultimately not really interested, you try to get all the information, take the time, bargain with your Department, and get a raise for yourself”).

At the MIT Department those days the most revered leader clearly was Paul Samuelson, who every day at noon would preside over the lunch table at the Faculty Club in the top floor of the building. At the table, he’d often entertain us drawing upon his spectacular collection of stories and gossip, not just about economists, but often about physicists and mathematicians. To Paul there was a clear hierarchy of disciplines. It was visibly demonstrated to me one day when we took a visiting English friend who wanted to meet Paul. We told Paul that he’d be interested to know that this friend had done his degree in Astrophysics, but now he was thinking of moving to Economics. At this Paul immediately said, putting his hand above his head, “Astrophysics, then Economics (he lowered his hand to his chest level), what next? Theology? (moving his hand to the knee level).

I have the greatest respect for Samuelson’s many fundamental contributions both to shaping the methods and tools of Economics and to its substantive content. Yet I have sometimes felt that he has pushed the subject more toward an application of physics and classical mechanics and equilibrium systems than it may have been completely healthy for the subject. Fortunately, there is now a greater appreciation in Economics of biological-type processes and even non-equilibrium systems of complexity theory, not to speak of cultural processes familiar in anthropology.

Samuelson’s clearly was one of the sharpest minds I have come across anywhere. His range of mastery over different branches of economics was phenomenal. Also, unlike many economists of his and certainly later generations particularly in the US, he was deeply interested in the history of economic thought (something that is now hardly taught in most major Economics Departments). Even on Marx he had some thoughtful papers. I am told that once asked by a radical MIT student what in his opinion was valid in Marx but not taught in any MIT course, his brief answer was: “class struggle”. That shows a breadth of vision missing in many contemporary technical economists. In his evaluation of Joan Robinson he showed unrequited generosity: in 1970 (at the peak of the controversies between the two Cambridges) he called her “one of the greatest analytical economists of our era”.

The other thing that struck me was how hard-working he was, even after reaching the peak of his discipline, both in academic research and in the world of policy advice, including writing a regular column for the Newsweek magazine. (I have been told that even at age ninety he used to come regularly to office, and was very active). I found the doors to his office always open; he’d stop work and cheerfully swap stories with most people who visited him.

I started teaching the graduate class on International Trade jointly with the famous trade economist and economic historian Charles Kindleberger. He was a delightful person to work and interact with; he was an enthusiastic old-style gentleman with lots of funny stories in his bag.

One time Samuelson, who liked to try teaching different graduate courses in different years, told me that he’d like to teach the International Finance class next Term jointly with me. I had never taught that subject before, and yet how could I say no to him? Later I realized that I should have never agreed to that. First, he always took his classes at 8 AM, which was too early for me. I barely function at that hour. More than that, even when it was not my turn to teach, some mornings I’d be woken up by a call from him at 6 AM, telling me that he had some unexpected summons from Washington DC, and had to catch a flight immediately and so, could I substitute for him that morning. I did not enjoy those occasions.

At the lunch table whenever the names of two stalwart economists of his generation came up, Paul would never miss an opportunity to take good-natured pot-shots at them: one was politically to his right (Milton Friedman) and the other to his left (John Kenneth Galbraith), though with the latter he shared some proximity to the Kennedy Administration.

He was also remarkably well-informed about details of other countries. When a Bengali student with surname Bose introduced himself to Paul, he said, “Bose? Any relation to the scientist Bose (Satyen Bose, the physicist), or the ‘Fascist’ Bose (Subhash Bose—although Subhash was actually quite opposed to fascist ideas, the Jewish world never forgot his meeting with Hitler in 1942), or the communist Bose (Jyoti Bose, then communist Chief Minister of West Bengal)?” He missed the name of his MIT engineer-colleague Amar Bose, who built the ‘Bose’ sound system and may be the only Bose now the younger generations have heard of.