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Paul Erdos: Model Academic

17 Apr

I get that it’s hard to avoid jumping on the apparent irony in Paul Krugman accepting roughly 1/4 mil. per annum for a non-teaching faculty position at CUNY, where he will be focusing his efforts on the study of income inequality

Fair enough.

Frankly, though, I’d rather they give him a cool million and cut ex-Chancellor Goldstein’s emeritus salary, which will see him take home over $500,000/yr for the next seven years, after which he will continue to receive a substantial pension.

Let’s also keep in mind that Krugman is almost certainly taking a substantial pay cut here. He was a tenured faculty member at Princeton where he easily stood out among even that apex university’s most distinguished professors. He was awarded the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, the crown jewel of a generally awe-inspiring CV. He has a regular column in the New York Times, a platform from which he’s established himself as our foremost public voice of reason on political and economic matters and as an often admirable scourge of the ruling classes. Is that a justification for exorbitant pay? No. But given the funding major research universities dole out to hire MBAs for ever-expanding administrative bureaucracies and athletics, I’d rather they start bringing up faculty pay across the board while gutting the rest of the budget. 

While we should by no means accept the deplorable state of American academe, as things stand it’s all-but-axiomatic that to be a successful academic in the US is to take a healthy bourgeois salary from an institution which saddles students with crippling debt and breaks the backs of criminally underpaid adjunct faculty. To single out Krugman and not your favorite academic celebrity simply on account of his research interests is symptomatic of the click-driven ephemeral outrage cycle that draws ire away from more deserving—but less readily digestible/apparent—targets.

That said, it’s worth considering the exceptions and asking why academics don’t do more to emulate them.

Like Krugman, the Hungarian mathematician and peripatetic couch crasher Paul Erdős had a storied and academically fruitful stint at Princeton.

But unlike Krugman, Erdős lacked a suitable disposition to plant his feet there. From Joshua Hill’s wonderful essay, ‘Paul Erdős: Mathematical Genius, Human (In That Order)’:

Erdos at Princeton - Edited

And unlike the vast preponderance of successful academics, Erdős gave away most of his inessential earnings and prize money to humanitarian causes, friends in need, and as rewards for answers to mathematical problems he didn’t have time to solve.

By most accounts, his only regular personal expenses were food, housing (for when he’d get booted from friends’ apartments), stationary, and amphetamines. Paul Hoffman relates the following in his biography of ErdősThe Man Who Loved Only Numbers

At five foot six, 130 pounds, Erdös had the wizened, cadaverous look of a drug addict, but friends insist he was frail and gaunt long before he started taking amphetamines. His hair was white, and corkscrew-shaped whiskers shot out at odd angles from his face. He usually wore a gray pinstriped jacket, dark trousers, a red or mustard shirt or pajama top, and sandals or peculiar pockmarked Hungarian leather shoes, made especially for his flat feet and weak tendons. His whole wardrobe fit into his one small suitcase, with plenty of room left for his dinosaur of a radio. He had so few clothes that his hosts found themselves washing his socks and underwear several times a week. “He could buy more,” one of his colleagues said, “or he could wash them himself. I mean, it takes zero IQ to learn how to operate a washing machine.” But if it wasn’t mathematics, Erdös wouldn’t be bothered. “Some French socialist said that private property was theft,” Erdös recalled. “I say that private property is a nuisance.”

The only possessions that mattered to him were his mathematical notebooks. He filled ten of them by the time he died. He always carried one around with him, so that he could record his mathematical insights on a moment’s notice. “Erdös came to my twins’ bar mitzvah, notebook in hand,” said Peter Winkler, a colleague of Graham’s at AT&T. “He also brought gifts for my children–he loved kids–and behaved himself very well. But my mother-in-law tried to throw him out. She thought he was some guy who wandered in off the street, in a rumpled suit, carrying a pad under his arm. It is entirely possible that he proved a theorem or two during the ceremony.”

All of his clothes, including his socks and custommade underwear, were silk, because he had an undiagnosed skin condition that was aggravated by other kinds of fabric. He didn’t like people to touch him. If you extended your hand, he wouldn’t shake it. Instead, he’d limply flop his hand on top of yours. “He hated it if I kissed him,” said Magda Fredro, a first cousin who was otherwise very close to him. “And he’d wash his hands fifty times a day. He got water everywhere. It was hell on the bathroom floor.”

Although Erdös avoided physical intimacy, and was always celibate, he was friendly and compassionate. “He existed on a web of trust,” said Aaron Meyerowitz, a mathematician at Florida Atlantic University. “When I was a graduate student and we had never met before, I gave him a ride. I didn’t know the route and asked him if he wanted to navigate with a map. He didn’t want to [and probably didn’t know how to]. He just trusted that I, a total stranger, would get him there.”

What little money Erdös received in stipends or lecture fees he gave away to relatives, colleagues, students, and strangers. He could not pass a homeless person without giving him money. “In the early 1960s, when I was a student at University College London,” recalled D. G. Larman, “Erdös came to visit us for a year. After collecting his first month’s salary he was accosted by a beggar on Euston station, asking for the price of a cup of tea. Erdös removed a small amount from the pay packet to cover his own frugal needs and gave the remainder to the beggar.” In 1984 he won the prestigious Wolf Prize, the most lucrative award in mathematics. He contributed most of the $50,000 he received to a scholarship in Israel he established in the name of his parents. “I kept only seven hundred and twenty dollars,” Erdös said, “and I remember someone commenting that for me even that was a lot of money to keep.” Whenever Erdös learned of a good cause–a struggling classical music radio station, a fledgling Native American movement, a camp for wayward boys–he promptly made a small donation. “He’s been gone a year,” said Graham, “and I’m still getting mail from organizations he gave donations to. Today I got a postcard from an Israeli girls’ home.”

In the late 1980s Erdös heard of a promising high school student named Glen Whitney who wanted to study mathematics at Harvard but was a little short of the tuition. Erdös arranged to see him and, convinced of the young man’s talent, lent him $1,000. He asked Whitney to pay him back only when it would not cause financial strain. A decade later Graham heard from Whitney, who at last had the money to repay Erdös. “Did Erdös expect me to pay interest?” Whitney wondered. “What should I do?” he asked Graham. Graham talked to Erdös. “Tell him,” Erdös said, “to do with the thousand dollars what I did.”

And for a glimpse into how this heterodox lifestyle cashed out in his scholarly routine, this is the Erdős entry from Mason Curry‘s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work:

Screenshot 2014-11-24 at 1.44.54 PM


We are the 99.9%!

14 Feb

This article in the Atlantic on how your average 1%er has seen her income flatline in recent decades when compared to the wealthiest .1% and .01% ends on a jarringly bathetic note.

The last paragraph seems reasonable enough up through O’Brien’s accurate observation that “it’s no mystery how to reverse [the astronomical upsurge in the richest sub-percentiles’ share of wealth].” But then it goes totally off the rails with what can only be an editorial oversight: “It’s a matter of setting better rules for markets and taxing earners at the top a bit more,” which is easily the most elaborate misspelling of “FULL COMMUNISM” I’ve ever seen.

This info is useful, though:

Who even are these people—the 1 percent of the 1 percent?

As Tim Noah explained, they’re mostly executives and bankers. A 2010 study of the top 0.1 percent found that 61 percent of this group is either a banker or an executive/manager another big corporation. The rest are mostly lawyers (7 percent), doctors (6 percent), and real estate people (4 percent).


Practically all the growth in average income at the top comes from stocks. Between 1992 and 2007, the average salary of a top-400 tax return doubled, but average capital gains haul increased 13X. Wages are for normal people. The richest get richer from their investments.

Encouraging Signs of Polarization…

3 Nov

…as Israel Shahak liked to say. The subject of dispute is the set of shibboleths underlying prevailing macroeconomic theory, as reported in an ultimately disappointing read in the Guardian. Aditya Chakrabortty’s report makes a nice addition to any clipfile on shifting economic thinking in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, but its account of challenges being levied against macroeconomic orthodoxy is fairly superficial and trite.

The anecdotes he uses to frame the piece are interesting and encouraging to hear. And it’s hard to disagree with some of the general points about (macro)economics suffering from tunnel vision both in method (abstract quantitative modeling, reductively characterizing economic agents as uniformly self-interested rational market participants) and scope (uncritically addressing concerns of capitalist political economy: growth, development, efficiency, inflation, preventative and therapeutic treatments for recession and depression, etc.).

But calling out the twin elite orders of economic authority–ivory tower economists and finance sector alphas–for causing, or at least failing to predict/prevent, the financial crisis without losing so much as their credibility and privileged positions of influence among policy makers…it’s something we all heard vaguely informed 18 year olds (rightly) proclaiming back even before the advent of Occupy.

Which brings me to another of the article’s shortcomings–the conspicuous failure to so much as mention Occupy or its European sister movements (British street protests and Occupy London‘s occupation of government buildings, Spain’s Indignados, Greek Okupas and anarchist community organizing in resistance to austerity, Israel’s tent city “social protests” , etc.). Surely these movements are central to understanding post-crash skepticism toward the reigning economic authorities. One wonders whether this omission was deliberate. Maybe Chakrabortty (or his editor) was afraid that if he dredged up all that he’d remind his audience that the trends in question are hardly recent developments.

My strongest direct objection is to this bit:

In his new book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, the US economist Philip Mirowski recounts how a colleague at his university was asked by students in spring 2009 to talk about the crisis. The world was apparently collapsing around them, and what better forum to discuss this in than a macroeconomics class. The response? “The students were curtly informed that it wasn’t on the syllabus, and there was nothing about it in the assigned textbook, and the instructor therefore did not wish to diverge from the set lesson plan. And he didn’t.”

I don’t think introductory macroeconomics classes have a responsibility to explain and analyze current affairs. It simply isn’t what the class is intended to do, right? There should be (and, at least in the US, often are) other classes offered in economics departments which address such pressing questions in a properly focused context; failing this, a department-sponsored reading group supervised and facilitated by one or more faculty members or whatever. The underlying problem, which Chakrabortty’s article touches on, is that the experts tasked with devising undergraduate economics training tend to deem such endeavors a distraction from imparting high level competence in the quantitative skill sets that employers are looking for.

And since it’s apparently Obvious Day on Camp Stupid, yes: all economics departments should teach Marx. Those that don’t should have their senior faculty publicly flogged with a hardcover copy of Das Kapital. Ideally the flogging should be doled out by the grad students and adjuncts. Their alienated labor under the supervision of blithe tenured mandarins really lends a bitter irony to the latter’s failure to make students read the guy who wrote the fucking book on workplace exploitation.

While we’re on the subject, here are Richard Wolff and David Harvey on Charlie Rose discussing the financial crisis as a crisis of capitalism (7/26/2012); they broach the problem of fatally parochial discursive boundaries in economics departments around the 14:14 mark:

And for anyone interested in exploring serious heterodox approaches to macroeconomic questions, the University of Manchester’s Post-Crash Economics Society’s reading list is a handy resource.


24 Aug

«As unemployment soared, it did not seem plausible to believe (as the British Treasury apparently did) that public works would not increase employment at all, because the money spent on them would merely be diverted from the private sector, which would otherwise have generated just as much employment.  Economists who simply advised leaving the economy alone, governments whose first instincts, apart from protecting the gold standard by deflationary policies, was to stick to financial orthodoxy, balance budgets and cut costs, were visibly not making the situation better.  Indeed, as the depression continued, it was argued with considerable force not least by J.M. Keynes who consequently became the most influential economist of the next forty years—that they were making the depression worse.  Those of us who lived through the years of the Great Slump still find it almost impossible to understand how the orthodoxies of the pure free market, then so obviously discredited, once again came to preside over a global period of depression in the late 1980s and 1990s, which, once again, they were equally unable to understand or to deal with. 
In any case, what was a “free market economy” when an economy increasingly dominated by huge corporations made nonsense of the term “perfect competition” and economists critical of Karl Marx could observe that he had been proved right, not least in his prediction of the growing concentration of capital (Leontiev, 1977, p.78)?»

–Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (1992)

«…history teaches us that we rarely learn from history…»

–John Quiggin, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (2010)