May 07, 2003

Notes: Alexander Gerschenkron

Recommended by Rebecca Hellerstein...

Nicholas Dawidoff (2002), The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World (New York: Pantheon: 0375400273).

Alexander Gerschenkron

p. 10: ... someone who was going to grow up to be a person of true principle would get that way by proving his loyalty to small things, like the Boston Red Sox. I was cautioned never to blame the umpire for the many disappointments suffered by the Red Sox. My grandfather wanted me to feel that a person creates his own luck. Although he accredited fate, felt that fate--like God--was immutable, he also seemed to find it oddly beside the point and believed that a man stood a better chance in life if he ran out every routine ground ball to second base. "Nicky boy, you never know," was one of his prized phrases...

p. 34: ... To a very real degree, Shura was raised on an ecumenical creed with tenets best expressed by Pushkin in his poem "I Built a Monument Not Made by Hands"--the last verse in particular:

"Long will be remembered by the nation
That of the good in men's hearts I did speak--
That I praised freedom in this age of deprivation
And called for mercy for the frail and the weak."

These lines were quoted so frequently in the family that all the Gerschenkron children knew them from memory, none better than Shura. "This poem Shura worshipped," says Lydia. What the entire family admired was both the nerve of the rebel poet standing up to tyranny wherever he saw it, and his belief in a moral and compassionate life.

p. 89: A liberal like Shura found it... easy to avoid the right-wing socioeconomist Othmar Spann, whose protofascist theory of "Universalism" rejected the use of empirical evidence in favor of "intuition and inspiration".... The university's extremist overseers... present[ed] a coveted chair to Spann, who dominated the University of Vienna's economics faculty during Shura's years in Vienna. In 1970 Shura received a letter from a professor who proposed to write an intellectual critique of Spann. Shura refused to help him on the grounds that "intellectual is a strong term when applied to Spann..."

p. 90: Moritz Schlick's was a far bleaker fate. One June day in 1936, as Schlick climbed up the University of Vienna's main interior staircase, a crazed student came rushing down toward him, held out a pistol and pulled the trigger at point-blank range, leaving Schlick crumpled on the marble steps. Ou tin the streets the murder met with not a little rejoicing. "The chairs of philosophy at the University of Vienna in German-Christian philosophy belong to Christian philosophers!" approved the Catholic weekly newspaper Schoenere Zukunft. Schlick's murderer pled "political motives" and served only two years in prison before the government granted him a full pardon.

p. 115: Many people who met Gulick weren't overly impressed.... Austria from Habsburg to Hitler, however, turned out to be a very impressive book... the defining contribution to the field.... Gulick died in 1984, and today there is no certain way to tell how much of the prose was actually set down by Shura...

p. 124: The Dutch-born Harvard economist Hendrick Houthakker once began to describe for Shura what it was like to be in Holland during the Nazi occupation. "I was a prisoner of the Gestapo.... I was about to tell Gerschenkron about an incident in which I more or less intimidated a sadistic sergeant, and Gerschenkron made it clear he didn't want to pursue that. He got off the conversation. It was odd. He didn't want to talk about anything that happened in the war"...

p. 126: "Published in 1943, when Shura was 39, Bread and Democracy in Germany... served him as an elegant calling card.... The book's subject is the Junkers, the powerful Prussian planter aristocrats... wheat, oat, barley, and rye... east of the Elbe River.... Brad and Democracy argues that the tolerance of such blatant government protectionism was symptomatic of an anti-democratic sensibility in German politics that made the country vulnerable to fascism.... "If the grain of the Junkers grows, the grain of German democracy will wither and perish from the earth."

p. 131: So when Dunlop wanted Shura to go along with him on some sticky departmental matter, he would invite him into his office and get him talking about the shipyards for a while before putting his request to him. The shipyards, Dunlop says, worked every time.

p. 142: "One letter [Abram] Bergson received began "Let me have your criticism, general and particular, and let me have it promptly"; a postscript added, "Criticisms are to be submitted in the form 'I suggest the following change' never in the form: 'This does not make sense' or similar." Nicholas Dawidoff (2002), The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World (New York: Pantheon: 0375400273).

John Maynard Keynes, "Sir Alfred Marshall": The master economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher--in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man's nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

p. 153: A man who could have been many things, he had chosen in Vienna to become an economist because the job "seemed to bear directly on questions of human happiness and human progress." In other words, he attached inherent moral virtue to his work. As he saw it, an economist was a creative intellectual who did vital practical labor. His mind was his seed plow, his steam shovel, and the decisions he made with it could improve people's lives. Although he might deal in binders, account logs, and columns of numbers, the economist's genius was that he could see into them human faces, human experiences... complexities of human needs and desires... human motivation... necessity, passion, greed, ambition... broader systems of behavior. For money is a great measure of man, but not every man acts simply for love of it...

p. 160: When Shura completed his index he discovered the most important Soviet chicanery... as late as 1950 the Soviets were still valuing everything in their economy according to the base-weight 1926-1927 preindustrial price structure. In 1950 each tractor was still being valued according to what it had been worth nearly twenty-five years earlier... "the shameless exploitation for propaganda purposes of an entirely untrue yardstick." The 20 percent growth was a canard. At its highest levels in the 1930s the Soviet economy grew at 12 to 13 percent, and by the 1950s those numbers had sharply diminished..... Among Soviet policy connoisseurs, A Dollar Index of Soviet Machinery Output was the subject of breathless conversation. "For a while, everyone was talking about the index number problem," says the economist Stanley Engerman...

Advantages of backwardness...

p. 187: Fifty years after Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective... there is no new model, and scholars are still tilting at Shura's. the idea... is deep, provocative, and functions on many levels...

p. 260: All the students were subject to these calculated displays of dominance, but Henry Rosovsky was treated to more of them than most. Everything about Gerschenkron intrigued Rosovsky, from the brandy and the lumberjacket to more existential matters such as who exactly Shura was. Rosovsky had grown up in the Free City of Danzig... a Russian Jew, and he was almost sure Gerschenkron was too. "He looked like a Jewish labor leader," Rosovsky says. "And his name was obviously Jewish." Shura considered his religion to be his business, but instead of imply saying so, he preferred to provoke Rosovsky. One year at Passover, Rosovsky announced, "Professor Gerschenkron, I will not be at seminar next week because I have to attend a seder."

Shura fixed Rosovsky with a quizzical expression. "Henry," he said, "tell me. I have always wondered. What is a seder?"

Rosovsky's graduate training at Harvard was interrupted by the Korean War.... Shura... put a book into his hands saying this was for Rosovsky to take with him into battle... Sartorius von Walterhausen's Deutsche Wirtschaftsgeschichte.... Although he considered it "probably the most absurd book any American soldier ever carried," Rosovsky did keep the Waltershausen stuffed in his pack... Found... it... reminded him of life beyond the war...

Industrialization in Two Systems...

p. 322: If ... the Faculty had rallied behind the administration and condign punishment had been swiftly meted out, then, after one or two more disorderly episodes, the air would have been cleared. As it is the student unrest will continue and with it the swelling wave of reaction.... Berkeley aided by Watts put Reagan into Sacramento...

p. 332: In life, Heckscher was a somewhat colorless workaholic, a kind and intelligent enough man, but a slogger who wrote all day every day and spent his spare time reading detective stories. When Shura wrote about him... Heckscher was transformed into a dashing figure of truly incandescent parts.... "In a sense... Heckscher himself was a great figure of the nineteenth century. His immense erudition, his classical background, his modesty, his fierce independence, his willingness at all times... to step on the treacherous ashes covering the smoldering fire of conflict and controversy, and, above all his severity to himself, his supreme sense of duty--these qualities of a very great scholar are less readily produced by our age of anxiety and instability. To the very end he remained faithful to his mission and continued to labor in the knowledge that the night cometh when no man can work...

Posted by DeLong at May 7, 2003 07:39 PM | TrackBack

Comments

The excerpts remind me of "Hopeful Monsters".

Posted by: Russell L. Carter on May 7, 2003 09:13 PM

A typo to good to pass up: "Brad and Democracy". Paging Dr. Freud!

Posted by: K Harris on May 8, 2003 07:46 AM
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