Remembering Stan Reiter

27 settembre 2014 michael suk-young chwe

My teacher Stan Reiter passed away back in August. Stan was one of the most important figures in the development of mathematical economic theory in the 20th century but I remember him most for his grace and kindness.

Stan, one of the early founders of what we now call "mechanism design theory,” focused particularly on the informational requirements needed to implement a social outcome. Price systems are often said to allocate goods without requiring lots of communication: for example, if you want to figure out which grandchild should get a grandparent's antique chair, you can have the grandchildren each talk about how much they like the chair, but it is simpler and faster for the grandchildren to auction the chair off among themselves. Stan's work with Leo Hurwicz (who won the Nobel prize in 2007) provided the mathematical formalism to make these kinds of arguments precise. Sometimes people talk about the economy as a "computer" which inputs social attributes (like consumer demands and technology) and outputs an allocation, and Stan's work was among the earliest formal models of this idea. Stan introduced one of the first formal definitions of what it means to "implement" a social outcome via a social process.

Stan was a legendary teacher and advisor, whose students included people such as Jim Jordan, Hugo Sonnenschein, John Ledyard, and Stefan Reichelstein. Stan is one of the most important "academic grandfathers" in economic theory (Sonnenschein's students alone were among the very first game theorists hired by economics departments). Stan was the leader in building the theory group at Northwestern University’s economics department and business school, which incubated much foundational work in economic theory, including the theory of auctions, game-theoretic models of trade, and the understanding of institutions in terms of their incentive structures (for which a few Nobel prizes have been awarded, to be likely followed by several in the future). He once told me that he was able to hire some of these pioneering people because no other economics departments wanted them. In other words, he had a taste and judgment which was decades ahead of the profession.

Stan taught a graduate class out of Gerard Debreu's book “Theory of Value,” and each student had to prepare a section from the book and present it on the board to the rest of us. Stan would provoke us and ask questions to get us to understand the material more fully, but always in a gentle, thoughtful manner. We all got valuable experience thinking on our feet and presenting material to others. He once joked that he made sure to show up on time for class because if he were to come in late, the students would realize that they could start the class without him. This was just a joke, but to me it illustrates the essence of teaching, which is to make the teacher obsolete.

I served as an research assistant for Stan for two or three years, and all Stan ever asked me to do was to read some papers and talk to him occasionally (I once worked on an algorithm for him once I think). I would talk to him in his office about once a month, and these conversations were completely unstructured---sometimes they were about a paper or a lecture someone gave, or just things I was thinking about doing. In these conversations, Stan never suggested that I do anything in particular, or not do something---he was always encouraging, even about topics (like in economic history) which he did not work in. He was the least "territorial" of any intellectual I have ever talked to. Sometimes we create ourselves through our conversations---through these conversations, I began to see myself as a scholar. I was being given "permission" to work on just about anything. Sometimes when I talk with graduate students now, I feel like they are pushing to "get to the point" while I am trying to get them to think more broadly and make unexpected connections.

I think that Stan was my titular advisor at one point, and I remember asking him about thesis topics. He explained to me that he did not believe in giving students thesis topics, and that half the task is to come up with your own. Most academics (maybe 80%) would not answer in this manner, but would try to give the student a topic which was part of an existing agenda. Again, Stan was giving me the space to be who I was. If he had answered differently, or if I had asked another person, my career would have gone in a completely different, and probably somewhat worse, direction.

My office (which I shared with two other students) was in the "math center" at Northwestern’s business school (the Center for Mathematical Studies in Economics and Management Sciences), and I changed my advisor a few times---I think it was Steve Matthews for a while, before I asked Roger Myerson. It was part of the milieu of the place that no one tried to influence what I was doing---when I started to work more on pure game-theory topics Stan and Steve said that I should probably have a "real game theorist" as an advisor, and suggested that I talk to Roger. It was completely open and non-territorial, and driven completely by what was best for me as a student. Only much later in my career did I realize that this was unusual in academia. In the math center, I talked a lot informally with the assistant professors at the time, including Steve Williams, Kiminori Matsuyama, Kyle Bagwell, Kerry Back, and Kevin Cotter. These interactions were so important for me believing that I could actually write something interesting someday, and the overall spirit of the place flowed naturally out of Stan's personality.

Some people in academia talk about themselves a lot, and are always "in their own mindset." In general, this pays off, because other people, especially students, start to adopt your mindset. I saw this as an assistant professor in Chicago a lot---it seemed that some grad students were eager to choose "who to think like." This is not necessarily bad for scientific progress, and it is natural for "schools" to form, although of course most new insights by definition come from out of nowhere.

Stan was the opposite of these kinds of people. When you talked to Stan, he was interested in what you had to say, not in anything he had ever written or what he thought was the right way to think about things. When I talked to Stan about a paper I wrote in economic history, Stan never gave any indication that he thought the paper was less important than my paper on game theory---in fact, when he wrote a recommendation letter for me for the job market, I think he talked about the history paper more than my other more technical work.

People with Stan's kind of personality tend to get less recognition than people with more self-regarding personalities—again, that's not necessarily bad, and being shy or reticent about your work does not advance the art. But I think this is what made Stan such a great teacher and advisor, and why his students did so many important things in so many different areas. Again, at the time I didn't realize how unusual Stan's combination of intellectual prowess, generosity, and selflessness (not in the sense of being self-sacrificing, but in the sense of not being into yourself all the time) was. I have never met anyone who combines these attributes in the same way, and in this sense Stan is a singular role model. I regret that younger academics these days seem to be so "professionalized" that they rarely look beyond their own vita, and wish that everyone could have such an open interlocutor as Stan.

Stan also had many interesting stories to tell. Stan went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, and his thesis advisor was Milton Friedman. Back then the Cowles Commission was at Chicago, and Stan knew people like Kenneth Arrow and Leo Hurwicz from this time. Stan told me that Arrow worked for years on his thesis on some unremarkable topic, and then came upon the social choice question and then completed his thesis in two weeks. I tell this story to struggling graduate students.

Friedman was not supportive of Stan's work (to put it mildly), because of its mathematical bent, and Stan told me that he had to almost physically fight Friedman to get him to sign off on his thesis. Stan said that on warm nights in the summer, people would go to the beach off 57th Street in Hyde Park and sleep in the coolness of the beach (which would be unheard of now).

Stan's first job was at Stanford University, but when his third-year review came around, Friedman, his own advisor, wrote a negative letter about Stan, and thus Stan had to leave Stanford. I tell this story whenever I hear people say what a great guy Friedman was (of course I don't have Friedman's side of the story). Needless to say, it is almost unheard of for an advisor to write a negative letter for her own student.

Stan then went to Purdue University in Indiana, where he put together one of the earliest outposts of mathematical economic theory. Sonnenschein and Ledyard were Purdue PhDs from this period, and this group was hired away by Northwestern. In this time period, the top economics departments were not super interested in this kind of work (again, putting it mildly)---for example, Myerson once told me that when he first went on the job market, no economics departments were interested in him and his only offers were from business schools. Stan invested in the future, and it paid off---eventually, people hired away from Northwestern (such as Bengt Holmstrom and Paul Milgrom) became the top micro theorists in the profession. I tell this story when people complain that political science has not embraced mathematical theorizing as quickly as economics---people tend to forget how indifferent and even hostile economics was to (for example) game theory at first.

At Purdue, Stan was able to have a lot of influence in hiring and thus build the department. Perhaps at Purdue, which was farther away from the center of the discipline, mathematical economics had more of an open space to grow. Thus maybe it was a good thing that Stan had not stayed at Stanford.

At Northwestern, Stan said that he and Don Jacobs, the long-time dean of the business school, realized that they could "trick" people into believing that things like operations research and other mathematical techniques belonged in a business school. They could never get away with this at a more established business school like Harvard, which had the reputation of being anti-theoretical (the case study method still reigns at Harvard). This was also an innovation, and presaged the development in some business schools of doctoral programs and the establishment of essentially economics, psychology, and sociology departments in some business schools.

Once or twice Stan asked me to house-sit for him. He and his wife Nina had a beautiful house close to campus and my girlfriend (now my wife) loved staying there. Of course, if you are graduate students house-sitting for a professor, the first thing you do is to invite friends over. We once had a party there, and I remember that with our friends around us in a beautiful house, playing the piano and singing, I had a vision of what my future life could be like.

Stan was an accomplished sculptor, having started that hobby in middle age, again an inspiration when I now hesitate trying something new. Stan once showed me his garage, where he had many interesting sculptures, including figures and some abstract pieces. Once Stan asked me, in his office, if I could help him load and move one of his sculptures. When he asked, he said that it would be OK if I said no. I was then perhaps oversensitive to issues of boundaries and I said I would rather not. (I’ve heard some professors ask their students to pick them up from the airport, etc., which I consider outrageous.) Stan said no problem, and that was that with no change at all in our relationship. Again, being able to refuse (and feeling "safe" enough to do so) helped me grow as a person, and I am happy about that decision, although I wish I could go back now and help him carry some sculptures. My wife reproaches me to this day for saying no to helping him, but I understand my point of view back then; in any case, with Stan it was no big deal.

Stan and Nina invited us for meals a few times, and I remember Nina’s cooking skill and warmth. Little things like that mean so much when you are a student, and there is no way to reciprocate. One can only try to honor them by being kind to others.

2 commenti (espandi tutti)

Stanley Reiter (1925/04/26 to 2014/08/09) was a professor at Northwestern University (1967-2014) . Before this he was at Purdue (1954-1967) and before that at Stanford (1949-1954). His PhD was from U of Chicago (1955).  According to wikipedia he coined the term 'cliometrics' in 1960.

Michael Suk-Young Chwe, born  1965, is a professor of political science at UCLA.  He received a PhD in Economics at Northwestern University and a BS in Econ at Caltech.  He is the author of two books:  'Jane Austen, Game Theorist' (2013) and 'Rational Ritual: culture coordination and common knowledge' (2001). The latter has been translated into Japanese and Chinese.

Inizia una nuova discussione

Login o registrati per inviare commenti