ASP is pleased to present the below interview with Michael Hurwicz, who authored the new book Leonid Hurwicz: Intelligent Designer: How War and the Great Depression Inspired a Nobel Economist.
“A fascinating, exciting story.” — Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
While still in his early 20s, and under Hitler’s shadow, Leonid “Leo” Hurwicz (1917-2008) left his home in Warsaw, Poland, seeking safety and a degree at the London School of Economics. The following years, while challenging and potentially life-threatening, contained the seeds of a lifelong intellectual adventure. Leo’s story is personal (born a refugee, precarious war years for himself and his Polish-Jewish family, a new life in America), global (revolutions, wars, depressions), ideological (socialism, capitalism, economic planning, free markets) and professional (a sixty-year career as a professor of economics leading ultimately to a Nobel Prize). This book tells his story.
Academic Studies Press: How did this project begin/come to you?
Michael Hurwicz: When my father won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2007, people naturally started asking me what he won for. And they didn’t stop asking questions after I said “laying the foundations of mechanism design”! Well, strangely, it turned out that my careers as hippie-bum, folksinger, tech writer, occasional fiction-attempter, eco-arts-educator, etc. etc. etc., really hadn’t prepared me all that well for providing capsule explanations of Nobel-level mathematical economics.
So, with the goal of putting together a 25-words-or-less answer for my curious friends and acquaintances, I went back and re-read some newspaper and magazine articles and publications put out by the University of Minnesota (where he taught), some Wikipedia articles, and more. I even cracked Designing Economic Mechanisms, the book in which my dad and his friend and colleague Stanley Reiter summed up their decades-long collaboration. Something that intrigued me in that book was the mention of the genesis of mechanism design in the “socialist calculation debate.” So I began digging into that and why my father would have taken such a deep interest in it.
My father passed away in June 2008, at the age of 90. A few months after he died, friends, family, and colleagues got together to remember his life, his times, his accomplishments. I ended up reviewing some more personal things, including some videos made at a celebration of his 90th birthday, a video in which I interviewed him about his experiences during World War II, my own memories of things he had told me over the years, and things my brother and sisters and other relatives shared with me.
Initially, I created a website (leonidhurwicz.org) to share some of what I was learning. After working on the website for some years, I came to feel that this story could probably best be told in an extended, continuous narrative—a book. A few years down the road, here we are!
ASP: What are you hoping to contribute to the field with the publication of this volume?
Hurwicz: I hope I can show the human side of what may appear to be a somewhat abstract, impersonal field.
ASP: What motivated you to write this book?
Hurwicz: Initially, the research was stimulated by my own curiosity and people asking me questions about my father’s Nobel Prize. Ultimately, I realized that there was a very interesting story here, and I wanted to tell it.
ASP: Can you discuss any challenges you faced while conducting research for your book, such as access to archives or sources? How did you overcome them?
Hurwicz: On the contrary, I was pleasantly amazed at how consistently people went out of their way to help me at, for instance, the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa, and the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. Busy people like Eric Maskin, co-recipient with my father of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Roger Backhouse, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Economics at the University of Birmingham, were incredibly generous with their time and expertise. Eric also introduced me to his friend, Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, who provided feedback and advice, and even detailed suggestions for edits and major revisions. I ended up reorganizing/rewriting the book a couple of times thanks to Sylvia – much to the benefit of the final product.
ASP: What in the book might surprise readers?
Hurwicz: Even though mechanism design is known for being a highly abstract and math-heavy aspect of economics, this book tells a human story that anyone can appreciate.
ASP: What surprised you most in your research for this book?
Hurwicz: I summarized this in the subtitle: “How War and the Great Depression Inspired a Nobel Economist.” It had not occurred to me how deeply my father’s famously “abstract” work in economics was connected to the dramatically unsettling, threatening, even terrifying events that characterized not only his early life but the lives of his family and ancestors for generations.
ASP: Given unlimited space, what else might you have added or included in the book?
Hurwicz: Lots of pictures. But you can see some of them on the website!
ASP: Can you talk about any particular passages or arguments in your book that you are especially proud of or excited about?
Hurwicz: The appendices. Especially Appendix A (a transcript of Leo’s memorial), Appendix B (a transcript of his 90th Birthday celebration), and Appendix E (a transcript of a 2007 video interview). Here, friends, colleagues, family members, and even my father himself, share their memories and insights in their own words, with great humor, emotion, and verve. For a really rich, entertaining, and moving portrait of my father, read these appendices!
ASP: How would you describe Leonid Hurwicz’s approach to economics in one sentence? How does it differ from other prominent economic thinkers of his time?
Hurwicz: “The goals are the givens, the desired economic system is the unknown.” The key idea of mechanism design is identifying goals first and then attempting to design a system that achieves those goals. The goals are given; the ideal mechanism is the unknown.
This contrasts with “positive” or predictive economics, which studies the actual or likely outcomes of a given system. In that case, the system is the given, and the outcomes are the unknowns.
Eric Maskin, in his lecture, “An Introduction to Mechanism Design” (Warwick Economics Summit 2014) uses the simple example of a parent wanting to divide a cake between two children. The goal is to divide the cake in such a way that both children are happy. The mechanism could be that one child cuts the cake while the other has first choice of the pieces. The goal of making a “fair division” is known in advance. The mechanism is designed specifically to achieve that goal.
ASP: What lessons can contemporary economists learn from Leonid Hurwicz’s work and life story?
a. Great challenges can stimulate great creativity. This may bring hope in a time of war, pandemic and global energy/climate crisis.
b. Design systems that take everyone’s incentives into account. See things through other people’s eyes.
c. As a corollary of (b) above, design systems that work “without shooting people” (my father’s words). That is, as far as possible, minimize the need for enforcement by designing systems that people will participate in willingly, because of their own incentives.
Leo Hurwicz and his wife Evelyn (right) with friends in 1944 in Chicago.
ASP: What do you think Leonid Hurwicz would say about the current state of the field of economics, and where it is headed in the future?
Hurwicz: One thing that I think my father tried to do and would continue to do today, is to inject an element of idealism and social activism into the sometimes “dismal” science of economics. He was active in politics—local, national, and at the University of Minnesota. In 1968, at the Democratic National Convention, he was a delegate for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, who was running on an anti–Vietnam War platform and challenging incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. He and my mother attended their last Democratic caucus together the year he died.
His motivation for these activities was reflected in a paper he worked on from the mid-90s until 2007, when he presented it as his Nobel acceptance speech: “But Who Will Guard the Guardians?” In this piece, he suggested that economic measures may be enforceable due to the presence of intervenors: “guardians” (people or organizations) that have both the power and, because of their ethics or beliefs, the willingness to enforce the rules.
At his memorial, my sister Ruth shared: “As long as my dad was living, I felt that someone wise and good was watching out for all of us. Dad tracked world events as one who understood that they are happening to us, not ‘them.’ He valued an active citizenry, and took his role as guardian to heart, doing his part to help steer the world in good directions.”
Leonid Hurwicz: Intelligent Designer is now available for purchase here or wherever you buy books.
Washington state-based writer Michael Hurwicz has long been fascinated by his father’s journey as a Polish Jew from 1930s Warsaw to America and ultimately a Nobel Prize in Economics. Michael’s book reflects deep archival research as well as conversations with his father, immediate and extended family, friends, students, and colleagues.