Summers Tribute to Kenneth Arrow

Larry Summers is not one of my favorite economists. Maybe I don’t know enough to make judgments, but I can’t forgive him for railroading Bill Clinton into overly relaxing controls on Wall Street in 2000, eventually contributing to disaster in 2008. But what a beautiful remembrance Summers has written about his uncle, Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow, who just passed away.

As Summers notes, his other uncle was another legendary economist, Paul Samuelson, “Summers” being an anglicization of “Samuelson.” Summers writes of a family party, held when he was in college, in which the two uncles got into an excited discussion over an arcane mathematical concept, Pontryagin’s Maximum Principle. It was late at night, and the two men’s wives were getting antsy, presumably having had long experience bearing these interminable discussions.

It reminded me of an incident some years ago in Berkeley. I was sitting in a cafe near the campus, and in came famous statisticians Leo Breiman and Peter Bickel, who sat down at a table near me. (I had met Breiman a few times but didn’t know him, and had never met Bickel, and thus was not involved in their conversation, just happened to overhear some.) There is no Nobel Prize in Statistics, but both men would deserve one. (Both are in the National Academy of Sciences.)

Well, they too got into a highly animated conversation about the latest theorem Breiman had proven. He said, excitedly, “It turns out that…,” math talk for “I just proved something quite counterintuitive.” Breiman was near 80 at the time (he passed away not too long afterward) and Bickel was in his 60s. I marveled that they had such enthusiasm for their work, talking like a couple of teenagers on the latest rock group.

Breiman’s passion for statistics (his work is also widely cited in machine learning) manifested itself in other ways, notably K-12 education. Among other things, he once held a seat on the Santa Monica school board.

Good for Breiman and Bickel, and for Summers’ two famous uncles (and OK, good for Summers too). They exemplify what is missing in all the talk of the importance of STEM in the U.S. Most STEM research today is very incremental, almost formulaic, done by people who are obsessed with climbing the academic ladder but with no true passion for their fields. Frankly, a lot of it is make-work, strategically designed to bring in the most grant money and maximize the length of the researcher’s CV. It would be unimaginable for those CV builders to run for the school board, or basically do anything other than robotically accumulating all those increments. And the amount of self-promotion these days is appalling. None of this is going to bring the major breakthroughs that will help the U.S. continue to lead the world in STEM. And don’t get me started on Tiger Mom-ism.

We need more people like Arrow, Samuelson, Breiman, Bickel and so on, who are first and foremost scholars, not academic entrepreneurs. Yet our system more and more discourages that kind of thing, and rewards the CV builders. Sad story.


8 thoughts on “Summers Tribute to Kenneth Arrow

  1. A great post in and of itself.

    The life of the mind exists almost nowhere these days, including academia. Everything, all that we do, seems to be an effort to increase our incomes, or more likely, our rents, through more meaningless credentials, more asinine “networking,” more bullshit.

    It seems to me that academia itself has been ruined by the student loan industry. Schools are now utterly bloated by an army of administrators and bureaucrats, bloating up the cost beyond its real value. Even if I had unlimited funds, I really can’t imagine going back for another degree.

    I wonder how the book industry is doing these days. Does anyone read or are we all too addicted to our stupid phones?

    I suspect that in 50 years, the future will belong to children whose parents were smart enough not to have any televisions or phones around their kids, and forced them to follow 19th century reading plans.


    • In my opinion, the reason for decline in reading by young people is not even TV and video games. Instead, ironically the pressure on kids in schools to read more, achieve more etc. makes the whole thing a chore, rather than a pleasure.


  2. Great article! I’m now retired, but your thoughts bring me back to the last year’s of academic research at UIC in Chicago. Lunchtime was when we would gather for lively discussions of just about any topic including neuroscience. Sadly, two participants passed away before retirement. It just wouldn’t be the same even if I remained there.


  3. What about patents? Is this not a measure of “breakthroughs”? UC-Davis raked in about $13 million in patent revenue for 2014-15.


  4. You are in good company. Richard P. Feynman, Noble Prize winner I believe would absolutely agree with you. I imagine he would be repelled by Tiger Moms where-ever they came from. Here is quote from Feynman about teaching physics in Latin America, He is first talking about the problem of how it is being taught, and his objections are almost lyrical using phrases like “the beauty of nature”:

    “First, and most serious, I believe, is the almost exclusive teaching and learning by means of pure abject memory. This in no way teaches physics as a science. Nothing is understood; it is only remembered. This in no way satisfies the reasons I outlined for teaching science. Memorization of laws does not permit one to make applications of these laws to new situations; it does not permit one the pleasure of ultimately making scientific contributions; it cannot teach any techniques with the hands. From memorizing, knowledge is not understood, and the beauty of nature is not appreciated. It does not tell how things were found out, or reveal the value of an inventive free mind.”


    • Thanks for the quote. I remember that in Surely You’re Joking he mentioned some students from Venezuela who were artistocratic scions who had simply memorized and thus couldn’t do real physics.


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