Paul Samuelson was the first American to win a Nobel for Economics. He, like Milton Friedman, who he often debated, was very influential and considered one of the important economists in American history. I have to check this but I believe Ben Bernanke studied at MIT, which means he would have studied under Samuelson. Also, Samuelson was Lawrence Summers’ uncle.

The NY Times business section has this terrific, fascinating report on Sauelson’s extraordinary life and career, including the part where they write about how MIT was able to pull him away from Harvard:

Mr. Samuelson earned his master’s degree from Harvard in 1936 and a Ph.D. in 1941. He wrote his thesis between 1937 and 1940 as a member of the prestigious Harvard Society of Junior Fellows. In 1940, Harvard offered him an instructorship, which he accepted, but a month later M.I.T. invited him to become an assistant professor.

Harvard made no attempt to keep him, even though he had by then developed an international following. Mr. Solow said of the Harvard economics department at the time: “You could be disqualified for a job if you were either smart or Jewish or Keynesian. So what chance did this smart, Jewish, Keynesian have?”

Indeed, American university life before World War II was anti-Semitic in a way that hardly seemed possible later, and Harvard, along with Yale and Princeton, was a flagrant example.

Times have changed…

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  • Yes. Times have changed, since his nephew would go on to become President of Harvard University as a smart, Jewish post-Keynesian Economist.

    Also, not only was Paul Samuelson a Nobel laureate in Economics, and his nephew, Larry Summers, is an Economist and government leader, but Samuelson’s brother (Larry’s father) Bob Summers was a respected Economist at Penn, and his sister in law, Anita Arrow Summers was a highly respected Economist at Wharton, and his brother in law through marriage sort of, was Ken Arrow, also a Nobel laureate in Economics.

    What a family of Economists!

    I recall Robert Summers once told me how he was visiting Stanford, and his wife said, isn’t this view priceless. And he replied, ‘well, actually, we can calculate the value of the view by analyzing the real estate values here in Palo Alto with ocean views versus those values lacking views….’ … or the time they decided to allow each family member to have a certain number of daily votes on which tv shows the family should watch on their single tv set. Family members could bid on the shows, and the family would watch the show with the greatest number of votes. Unfortunately, the kids would gang up and pool their votes and outbid the parents.

    I recall zero about Pareto Optimality, Arrow’s Theorem’s, Mansfield’s curves, or Larry Klein’s econometric forecasts, but I do recall the Samuelson/Summers family stories. ~~ Larry,

    • Larry, I feel badly that I wrote that post because you probably would have given far more insight and depth that I could based on a couple of online obits.

      That is an incredible family history! I was thinking about the irony of Summers having become prez of Harvard (and his unfortunate departure) considering his uncle’s challenges there when I wrote this and that’s why I commented that times have changed. With Wharton, Penn and MIT represented among the older generation, clearly whatever barriers had existed were overcome by the recognized capabilities of these individuals.

      In a year with Madoff and Rothstein, it’s important to remember the contribution that the Jewish community has made and continues to make to American society. Obviously, this family represents this contribution handsomely.

      One thing I am wondering, however, is whether their children and grandchildren identify as Jews or not. I gathered from Samuelson’s wives’ maiden names that neither was Jewish and I wonder how the children and grandchildren view this side of their heritage.