ABRAM BERGSON

April 21, 1914–April 23, 2003

BY PAUL A. SAMUELSON

OVER THE LAST TWO-THIRDS of the twentieth century Abram Bergson was a leading American and world economist. He was a creative theorist, both literary and mathematical. Bergson was also a careful statistical empiricist who, from a bully pulpit at Harvard, earned a reputation as the dean of Soviet studies and teacher of that subject’s major scholars.

At a young age in 1933 Abram came to the Harvard Graduate School in economics after undergraduate training at Johns Hopkins (where he was a hometown commuter). Adolph Hitler was responsible for new foreign blood arriving in Cambridge to trigger a prewar Harvard renaissance in economics. When Bergson died at age 89, he was the last survivor of Harvard’s age of Frank Taussig, and had been a young star in the new age of Joseph Schumpeter, youthful Wassily Leontief, eclectic Gottfried Haberler, and after 1937 Alvin Hansen, the “American Keynesian.” As Leontief’s second protégé I am proud to have been preceded by Abram Bergson, his first protégé. I would be honored to be known as Bergson’s first protégé, for much of my own work in welfare economics owes virtually everything to his classic 1938 Quarterly Journal of Economics article that for the first time clarified this subject.

Two of Bergson’s most cited papers actually appeared



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 23
ABRAM BERGSON April 21, 1914–April 23, 2003 BY PAUL A. SAMUELSON O VER THE LAST TWO-THIRDS of the twentieth century Abram Bergson was a leading American and world economist. He was a creative theorist, both literary and mathematical. Bergson was also a careful statistical empiricist who, from a bully pulpit at Harvard, earned a reputation as the dean of Soviet studies and teacher of that subject’s major scholars. At a young age in 1933 Abram came to the Harvard Graduate School in economics after undergraduate train- ing at Johns Hopkins (where he was a hometown commuter). Adolph Hitler was responsible for new foreign blood arriv- ing in Cambridge to trigger a prewar Harvard renaissance in economics. When Bergson died at age 89, he was the last survivor of Harvard’s age of Frank Taussig, and had been a young star in the new age of Joseph Schumpeter, youthful Wassily Leontief, eclectic Gottfried Haberler, and after 1937 Alvin Hansen, the “American Keynesian.” As Leontief’s sec- ond protégé I am proud to have been preceded by Abram Bergson, his first protégé. I would be honored to be known as Bergson’s first protégé, for much of my own work in welfare economics owes virtually everything to his classic 1938 Quarterly Journal of Economics article that for the first time clarified this subject. Two of Bergson’s most cited papers actually appeared 23

OCR for page 23
24 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS under the authorship of Abram Burk. Burk was indeed the name he had been born with. How A. Burk became A. Bergson is a tale worth telling, both as a reflection of what American academic and ordinary life was like 70 years ago, and for what it tells about his own straight-arrow character. Abram’s older brother Gus (Gustav Burk) studied Harvard graduate physics at the same time that Abe was studying economics. (Reliable family legend tells that Gus’s skill in Baltimore poker games won for his junior brother private tutoring in the economics that he would need at Harvard.) Gus Burk particularly felt uncomfortable in having a name that did not correctly identify him as being the son of Rus- sian immigrant Jews. So the two decided legally to change their surname. Abram sought my advice on the tentative substitution of Bergson for Burk. That struck me as an ex- cellent choice: “It makes the point, but does not rub it in.” Still Abram dithered: “You don’t suspect, Paul, that some will think I’m trying to travel on the prestige of the great French philosopher Henri Bergson?” I put that probability down to near zero. The rest is history. And the old Brah- min Boston Transcript wrote a laudatory editorial commend- ing this reverse instance of an opposite common pattern. In the end no significant citation confusion resulted from this early career decision. Having by 1937 already achieved wide respect as a math- ematical economist, serious Abram decided he would add a second string to his bow. Accordingly he learned the Rus- sian language, and made a lengthy research visit to Mos- cow. Nineteen thirty-seven was the precise year when Stalin was liquidating on a large scale dissidents and innocents as enemies of the revolution. In later reflection Bergson re- ported how astonishing it had been that none of the many scholars he talked to—most of whom must have known family

OCR for page 23
25 ABRAM BERGSON members and neighbors who were imprisoned or killed— communicated complaints to a naive American visitor. By 1940 Bergson had written for publication his Harvard Ph.D. thesis. Thereafter at the wartime Office of Strategic Services, at Columbia, at the RAND think tank in Santa Monica, and after 1956 as tenured Harvard professor, Abram Bergson divided his time and energies between pure eco- nomic theory and the Soviet economics specialty. After the 1940-42 years at the University of Texas, Austin, Bergson spent most of the World War II years as head of the Russian desk at the Office of Strategic Services. Then at war’s end Columbia called him to an economics chair. A decade later at Harvard, after 1956, he taught scores of theorists and Kremlinologists. Many of the cognoscenti at the frontier of modern wel- fare economics—I being one of them—expected Stockholm to wake up to Bergson’s merits. Alone, along with Ian Little or John Harsanyi or John Rawls, a Bergson prize could have added luster to the new post-1968 Alfred Nobel awards in economics. My tentative guess as to why that never did hap- pen goes as follows. Kenneth Arrow’s monumental work on the impossibility of any constitutional method of voting that would satisfy half-a-dozen plausible desirable axioms, that great theorem somehow got confused in nonspecialists’ minds as being a proof against the possible existence of the quite different animal of the Bergson Ethical Normative Func- tion. The history of every science contains some history of confusions, and economics is no exception to this. In connection with ethical value judgments Bergson clari- fied how they could be distinguishable from testable em- pirical relations, a problem inadequately grappled with by Lionel Robbins (1932). Bentham, J. S. Mill, Edgeworth, as well as Pareto, Myrdahl, Lerner, Hicks, Kaldor, Scitovsky,

OCR for page 23
26 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS Vickery, and Little could be given coherent interpretation in light of Burk-Bergson (1938). Vilfredo Pareto in the years 1892-1913 brought impor- tant excellent insights into the post-Bentham utilitarian methodologies of Anglo-Saxon normative economics. But Pareto was an isolated pioneer, self-indulgent in his exposi- tions as is not surprising in an autodidact. Serious Abram pondered important questions such as whether what we have come to call “Pareto optimality,” which in even vaguer for- mulations is already in Mill (1848) if not indeed already in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (1776), was a singular “the optimum” rather than (as in Francis Edgeworth [1881]) an infinity of incommensurable optima. My re-readings with him could not resolve the interpretations. Bergson’s insightful happy thought was first to understand that any ethical code is, in the language of Arrow (1951), “imposed.” The “just” person does not give his second coat to a naked beggar because that happens to tickle his fancy that Monday. It is his credo that requires him to do that. However, using the useful device of an Individualistic Social Welfare Function—a special case that economists like to contemplate—Bergson could derive Pareto optimality con- ditions as necessary but not sufficient conditions for defin- ing interpersonal normative equity. (Later Leontief and Franklin Fisher elaborated on “weak” mathematical separa- bility and “strong” separability; earlier Irving Fisher had formulated testable conditions for Bentham-like additive hedonism; and as late as 1955 John Harsanyi restored some credence to pre-Bergson cardinality of individual utilities and of Social Cardinal Utility in the light of stochastic choos- ers sometimes feeling obliged to pay respect to the Inde- pendence Axiom in post-von Neumann argumentations about Laplacian Expected Utility. Few National Academy of Sci- ences readers need to understand this name dropping, in-

OCR for page 23
27 ABRAM BERGSON asmuch as out of any one hundred 2003 graduate economic students in the Ivy League and Big Ten, my Bayesian esti- mate is that almost none of these professionals do compre- hend these nuances.) What needs to be stressed is that Bergson’s Social Wel- fare Function(s) left plenty of room for ethical credos that ordained duties and for which separate Pareto-optimality conditions could not even be defined. In the language of Richard Musgrave’s magisterial The Theory of Public Finance (1958), “merit wants” that are so unpopular on the Univer- sity of Chicago midway do exist. Some societies might even be unanimous in voting a fair military draft, even though every young voter is unwilling to be a volunteer. (God is in the ad libs. I knew a libertarian economist who was against the tyranny of coercive traffic lights. My spies reported that, nevertheless, commuting to daily work he revealed a pref- erence for the longer route over the lights-free shorter router: His gut knew more about the algebraic pluses and minuses of the calculus of “liberty” than his conscious mind did.) Abram Bergson was a realist par excellence. He applied generous reasoned discounts to the statistical growth claims of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist statisticians. And yet, after the dozen post-Gorbachev years of communist dissolution the emerging evidence suggests to me—and I think to “Hon- est Abe” as he was known at Harvard—that the Soviet sys- tem was even less productive in most sectors than the inter- national almanacs had estimated. Why? Plain Machiavellian lying? No doubt there was some of that, as all our experts did recognize. More important, I suggest after much reflection, is the fact that what are called “prices” in a controlled society have little true relationship to relative scarcities and techni- cal trade-off costs. From copious nonmeaningful statistical inputs will have to come quite nonmeaningful statistical

OCR for page 23
28 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS estimates. One wonders whether some future transforma- tion of Mao’s Chinese economic system will thereafter re- veal how hard it is for scholars to gauge correctly how deep China’s present-day discount factors ought to be. Before Schumpeter died in 1950 that learned scholar had to feel some jealousy of John Maynard Keynes, who gained recognition as the twentieth century’s greatest econo- mist. Our master therefore missed what he would have cer- tainly relished, namely, his burgeoning posthumous fame. Innovation and long-term trends today command some of the interest and energy that had previously belonged to equilibrium statics and macroeconomic business cycle fluc- tuations. Moreover, the fact that widow Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter bequeathed to the Harvard Archives all his pa- pers, personal and private, and even those that discuss in an obscure German shorthand the pros and cons of not marrying her, that understandably created a cottage indus- try in Schumpeter biographies. One of the best and most balanced of those biographies on Joseph Schumpeter, that by the Swedish economic sociologist Richard Swedberg (1991), raised an important question. In my paraphrase the biographer at one point writes, “Now I must ask the follow- ing question. Can we judge Joseph Alois Schumpeter to have been a fervent friend to mankind? On the basis of all the known evidence, perhaps no firm answer can be given to this question.” No biographer of Abram Bergson could be in doubt about his personal attitudes and modesty. I have made stron- ger claims on his behalf than he ever made in print. He was no shrinking violet. Thus when he found some faults in the mathematical writing of Ragnar Frisch (who later was de- servedly to share the first Bank of Sweden-established Nobel Prize in Economics in 1969), Bergson did stand up to that

OCR for page 23
29 ABRAM BERGSON great and self-confident man. (In Bergson [1936], written when the author was only 24, will be found an earliest for- mulation of the Constant Elasticity of Substitution Func- tion, which outside of consumer utility analysis, became widely used in production theory; it is also a workhorse in modern finance theory as the one case where optimal portfolio ra- tios are independent to whether wealth is large or small. This is but one of Bergson’s theoretical novelties.) Those who knew Abram Bergson and knew his informed views on Smith, Marx, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lenin, and Stalin will judge him to have been a man of the center with a personal preference toward less economic inequality. That majority view among his generation of economists (and mine), perusal of the published literature will confirm, has lost its preponderant majority as the Great Depression and World War II recede farther into history. Libertarianism à la Milton Friedman and Friedreich Hayek has gained in strength. Outside the academy, among voters in general there has been a similar erosion of “altruism.” However, with the weak- ening of “altruism” and the gaining of “my wallet” motiva- tions, I detect no logical or empirical tie-up with libertari- anism as such. Also among academics in or outside economics there has taken place little popularity for fundamentalist religions. Straight-arrow honest people can sometimes seem to many of us naïve—refreshingly naive. Bergson provides such an example. His lack of guile is illustrated by the following anecdote. Abram was a close friend of Harvard’s learned Alexander Gerschenkron, who taught economic history and did so as a tough nonelective. Among students and young faculty almost a rebellion was brewing. Therefore a com- mittee was appointed to review requirements. Bergson was asked to be its chairman. If he had asked advice from his Machiavellian MIT friend, Paul Anthony Samuelson, he would

OCR for page 23
30 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS not have touched that third-rail topic with a 10-foot insu- lated pole. Honest Abe was never Machiavellian. He ac- cepted the draft. And, inevitably, by strong majority the committee recommended new and much lighter economic history requirements. Gerschenkron, a strong believer in what he believed in, never quite forgave Honest Abe. A lifetime friendship was strained. Someone else could have been chairperson, as I think Abe came to realize belatedly. Once in Bergson’s rare reminiscing about his Baltimore youth, he mentioned that Gus and he would organize a number of new neighborhood clubs. Their main purpose seemed to be primarily to decide who would be excluded from them. Later I learned that being elected to honorific academies was somewhat similar. Energy on research gets you into the Academy; for example, Bergson was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1980. After that your time for research becomes compromised by duties to serve on research and nominating membership committees, whose main function is to decide just which worthies will be the ones not to be elected. Back a long time before Bergson’s death we had lunch together at the Harvard Faculty Club. A Harvard scholar came by whom I had known a long time, saying hello to me and passing on. At this point, as old friends will gossip to each other, big-mouth Samuelson said: “I wish that guy would not be so sharp with his wife.” Abe’s response was: “I’m glad to hear you say that.” Surprised, I said, “Why should you want an acquaintance to be unkind?” “I don’t,” Bergson explained, “It’s just that he’s being so mean to me, and I thought it was something personal.” In the high-pressure atmosphere of modern university life, true character ultimately reveals itself—for better or worse. Abram Bergson over a long career earned from teach- ers, pupils, colleagues, and friends much affection and ad-

OCR for page 23
31 ABRAM BERGSON miration. His wife, Rita Macht Bergson, herself from an academic Baltimore background, played an important role in their family and professional lives. I owe to their three achieving daughters—Judy, Mimi, and Lucy—much infor- mal help in preparing this affectionate memoir. REFERENCES Arrow, K. 1951. Social Choice and Individual Values. New York: John Wiley. Bentham, J. 1789. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legis- lation . London: T. Payne. Reissued 1970, eds. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. London: Athlone Press. Bergson (Burk), A. 1936. Real income, expenditure proportional- ity, and Frisch’s “New methods of measuring marginal utility.” Rev. Econ. Stud. 4:33-52. Bergson (Burk), A. 1938. A reformulation of certain aspects of wel- fare economics. Q. J. Econ. 52:310-34. Bergson, A. 1944. The Structure of Soviet Wages: A Study in Socialist Economics . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Edgeworth, F. Y. 1881. Mathematical Psychics. London: C. Kegan Paul. Harsanyi, J. 1955. Cardinal welfare, individualistic ethics, and inter- personal comparisons of utility. J. Polit. Econ. 63:309-21. Mill, J. S. 1848. Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Appli- cations to Social Philosophy. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown; 1908, New York: Appleton. Musgrave, R. 1958. The Theory of Public Finance. New York: McGraw- Hill. Robbins, L. 1932. An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. London: Macmillan. Smith, A. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Modern Library ed., 1937. New York: Random House. Swedberg, R. 1991. Schumpeter: A Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

OCR for page 23
32 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 1936 Real Income, expenditure, proportionality and Frisch’s new meth- ods . . . Rev. Econ. Stud. 4(Oct.):33-52. 1938 A reformation of certain aspects of welfare economics. Q. J. Econ. 52(Feb.):310-34. 1942 Prices, wages and income theory. Econometrica 10(Jul.-Oct.):275-89. 1944 The Structure of Soviet Wages: A Study in Socialist Economics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1948 Social economics. In A Survey of Contemporary Economics, ed. H. Ellis, pp. 412-48. Philadelphia, Pa.: Blakiston. 1951 On inequality of income in the USSR. Am. Slavic East Eur. Rev. 10(Apr.):95-99. 1954 On the concept of social welfare. Q. J. Econ. 68(May):233-52. 1961 Real National Income of Soviet Russia, Since 1928. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1966 Essays in Normative Economics. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

OCR for page 23
33 ABRAM BERGSON 1968 The economic organization of Communism. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 3, pp. 132-39. New York: Macmillan Company. 1971 Comparative productivity and efficiency in the Soviet Union and the United States. In Comparison of Economic Systems, ed. A. Eckstein, pp. 161-218. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 1972 Optimal pricing for a public enterprise. Q. J. Econ. 86(Nov.):519-44. 1973 On monopoly welfare losses. Am. Econ. Rev. 63(Dec.):853-70. 1975 A note on consumers’ surplus. J. Econ. Lit. 13(Mar.):38-44. Index numbers and the computation of factor productivity. Rev. Income Wealth 21(Sept.):259-78. 1976 Social choice and welfare economics under representative govern- ment. J. Public Econ. 6(Oct.):171-90. 1978 Productivity and the Social System—The USSR and the West. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Taste differences and optimal income distribution. In Pioneering Eco- nomics: International Essays in Honour of Giovanni Demaria, Tullio Bagiotti and Giampeiero Franco, eds. Padova: Cedam. 1979 Consumer’s and producer’s surplus and general equilibrium. In Theory for Economic Efficiency: Essays in Honor of Abba P. Lerner, ed. H. I. Greenfield et al., pp. 12-23. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

OCR for page 23
34 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS 1981 Consumer’s and producer’s surplus and income redistribution. J. Public Econ. 16(Aug.)31-47. 1982 Welfare, Planning and Employment: Selected Essays in Economic Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 1983 Pareto on social welfare. J. Econ. Lit. 21(Mar.):40-46. 1985 A visit to China’s economic reforms. Comp. Econ. Stud. 27(Summer):71-82. 1989 Planning and Performance in Socialist Economics: The USSR and Eastern Europe. Boston: Unwin Hyman. 1997 How big was the Soviet GDP. Comp. Econ. Stud. 39(1):1-14.

OCR for page 23

OCR for page 23