Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 18

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Of the senior professors at MIT other than Samuelson and Solow, I had a somewhat close relationship with Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, a pioneer in development economics. He had grown up in Vienna and taught in England before reaching MIT. He had advised governments in many countries, and was full of stories. In India he knew Nehru and Sachin Chaudhuri well. He had an excited, omniscient way of talking about various things. At the beginning of our many long conversations he asked me what my politics was like. I said “Left of center, though many Americans may consider it too far left while several of my Marxist friends in India do not consider it left enough”. As someone from ‘old Europe’ he understood, and immediately put his hand on his heart and said “My heart too is located slightly left of center”.

One of his many stories involved his trip to rural Egypt. He was traveling in the countryside in a car in the early evening. He saw a big field in one village where people were gathering for a cinema show; he stopped there, and as he walked closer to the place he saw that the large screen was made of rather thin paper. So he asked his Egyptian companion why it was paper, not the usual cloth screen; the latter asked him to wait, he’d soon know why. Then the film started, and sure enough it was a Bombay film, where at the beginning the villain was winning both in the fight scenes with the hero and also in the love scenes with the heroine. As this went on for some time the viewers were getting angrier and angrier, at one point they couldn’t take it anymore, they all stood up and with great fury started throwing their little knives at the screen, which soon got badly perforated. The projector was then stopped, and another paper screen was installed before the film could continue to its ultimate crowd-satisfying end.

In the MIT faculty, apart from the other assistant professors, I got to know reasonably well Peter Diamond (in public economics, a future Nobel laureate), Karl Shell (a growth theorist), Richard Eckaus (a development economist), and Peter Temin (an economic historian). But I became particularly friendly with some of the graduate students who had either just finished their dissertation or were soon going to. In the former group were George Akerlof (another future Nobel laureate) and Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri (a Santiniketan classmate of Amartya-da, doing his dissertation a bit late in his academic life—Samuelson for fun used to call him Chatta-Daduri).

Mrinal soon became one of the best friends I ever had (more on him later). George is one of the most imaginative and creative economists around, his Woody-Allenesque anxiety-prone and easily-frazzled manners hide his powerful mind. He also became a good friend whom I saw a lot more later as a colleague at Berkeley. At MIT I was often together with Joe Stiglitz, George, and Mrinal–this was the most sparkling set of companions I could imagine. (Through them I also got to meet the distinguished growth theorist Hirofumi Uzawa—more on him later). Among all of us, Joe was then in a phase of spectacular productivity, publishing numerous first-rate papers.

Among the students who were nearing the end of their dissertation I knew well Avinash Dixit and Martin Weitzman. Avinash brought from his Mathematics background (in Cambridge, England) an elegance of analysis to economic-theoretical problems that was impressive. Apart from his many original contributions, his unifying overviews on different topics have been a valuable guide for many. He used to be bit of an Anglophile, but racial issues in England were partly responsible for his moving to the US.

Marty Weitzman was in many ways a striking character. When I first met him, the first thing I noticed about him was his accent — it sounded like a deep New York street drawl, which at first I had some difficulty in following. (I don’t know if his early years in a New York orphanage were responsible for this; Weitzman was actually the surname of his foster parents.) But soon I got used to his accent and his charming informality. At that time he was a leftist, fresh from his formative student years in the tumultuous sixties. He was a technically sophisticated economist, but unlike many others of his ilk, he grappled with big systemic issues, which particularly attracted me. We spent several afternoons discussing those issues, but unlike many on the left he was a maverick, spurning clichés and thinking always out of the box.

Over the years, his economics became somewhat less radical. He once told me that in a recent visit to his parents’ summer cottage he discovered on a shelf his heavily-marked old copy of Hayek’s book Road to Serfdom. In his youthful radical days he had marked many of Hayek’s passages there with loud dismissive comments like “BS-BS-BS”. But now, he told me, he was surprised to find how some of the issues Hayek raised were important, and he felt compelled to erase those profane markings. When in the early 1990s I wrote an article about how the old idea of market socialism (using the market mechanism to achieve objectives of social justice) needs to be reformulated to take into account many of the incentive and information issues raised by Hayek, Marty was a particularly appreciative reader.

After making path-breaking contributions in the field of comparative economic systems he gradually moved to the field of environmental economics, soon becoming a leader in it, challenging some of the standard cost-benefit calculations, when we cannot ignore the small but not entirely negligible probability of catastrophic risk in the matter of climate change from greenhouse-gas emissions. So his pleading for control of those emissions became particularly urgent and influential. (I grieve personally and for the world that such a brilliant man recently took his own life.)

Two other MIT students I knew well were Stan Fischer (he was my student at the International Trade class, later taught at MIT, and held top positions at IMF, the World Bank, and at the Federal Reserve) and Robert Merton (later a Harvard Professor and a Nobel Laureate). After I moved from our Harvard Square apartment to a campus apartment at MIT, both Stan and Robert also lived in the same tall apartment building.

We all worked until very late at night at the Department, and for occasional breaks, we used to play table-tennis. I remember one night when Robert and I were playing, some piece of paper fell out of his pocket. When I pointed his attention to that he thanked me profusely because in that piece of paper he had written out the formula for option pricing in stock markets with the intricate proof of the relevant theorem that he had recently worked out (presumably he had not kept copies), that ultimately got him the Nobel Prize. Robert’s father, also with a similar name, was famous as the founder of modern sociology. Robert told me that in his early youth almost every night at the family dinner table there were distinguished scholars whose conversations he could hardly fathom. His Nobel Prize may have elevated his position later at that table.