Sunday, 23 May 2010


The person you are looking at is Professor Thomas Marschak, an eminent authority in Economics of Information, son of Jacob Marschak, an even more eminent authority in the same field. More importantly, he was also my teacher and mentor way back in 1976/77 and is still conveying bonhomie, as well as knowledge, to ever younger student generations glad to be his pupils.
Has time stood still? Is it possible, after long and successful service, to become a Professor and Teacher Eternal? 

Before answering this and other weighing questions, permit me, as a prelude, to explain about my own dealings with UCB, that is, about my reasons for coming to Berkeley back then and my experiences, once arrived. In order to make this more palatable to you, let me intersperse it with some pictures of flowers I took at a rainy day on Campus.

I started academic studies (in Vienna) already in 1962, but it took me ten more years to get my major in economics and be accepted as a graduate student in Stockholm. My first thesis adviser, the markedly creative economist Bengt Christer Ysander, encouraged me to write a thesis in the field of information (My main adviser was Professor Lars Werin, who aptly guided me through the thesis' final stages). 

In those days, it was deemed important to improve the assessment of investments in public information systems, in particular the large scale EDP (electronic data processing) systems being introduced overall in Swedish administration during that time.

If you are an economist you realise, of course, that any assessment method for a given class of investments must start with developing an identification model for that investment class. For you normal people, this means that you have to know, and be able to describe, the things you are assessing. But how do you identify the changes in information flows generated by buying a huge mainframe computer, letting systems analysts run amok for a couple of years and, as end result, driving office staff to the brink of exhaustion by forcing it to enter data, on a video screen, according to procedures defying established logic?

Whilst I was pondering these strategic questions, and not going anywhere with my thesis, Roland Andersson, a good old friend, came to rescue. He was just back from Berkeley and looked the part, with a long blond moustache and hair cascading down his shoulders. He advised me to go to UCB and said: “Whatever problem you may have with your thesis, there will be someone there to make sense out of it for you.” More to the point, he also lent me his UCB General Catalogue, in which I saw an interesting interdisciplinary graduate course with the impressive title “Economics of Decision, Information and Organisation”. This course was stretched out over the full academic year and appeared to solve all my problems.

So off we went, my wife Alice and myself, to this temple of knowledge. Upon my arrival, I was well received by two advisers assigned to me, George Åkerlöf and Daniel McFadden, both still young then but, I am glad to say, Nobel Laureates by now. They had bad news for me: the one year course had been reduced to a short seminar, to be given during the third quarter in spring 1977 and taught by Thomas Marschak.

The good news was however, as they put it, that this would enable me to garner the necessary prerequisites for the seminar, which consisted of courses in mathematics and statistics at intermediate level and which I had been sadly unaware of. With those digested, I would also be able to take a third quarter course on Game Theory, taught by John Harsanyi (another Nobel Laureate; where do all these geniuses at Berkeley come from?).

So a major part of my stay was not to be spent on studies directly relevant for me, as I saw it then. But how I was mistaken! These preparatory courses were among the most interesting academic exercises I had ever experienced. The course I remember most fondly was about “elementary” classical mathematical analysis. It was given by Tosio Kato, an amiable, somewhat absent-minded, scholar.

He distinguished himself by rarely being able to finish the day’s lecture topic within the allotted hour. He would put the proposition of the day on the blackboard, hesitating about its precise phrasing, and keep changing details for about 15 minutes, mumbling to himself, with his back to us faithful students. Once satisfied with the topic of the day, he would then proceed by outlining the proof of the proposition, but soon lose himself in all kinds of diverting arguments; and so it would continue until the clock tolled and us confused students were released from his guardianship.
Professor Tosio Kato in 1988 (UCB Website)
All this led to some frustration among the younger students in his class, but I had already some 12 years of study behind me, so I did not mind that much. In fact, a bit slow in oral understanding that I am, I always had been neglecting lectures in my early student years, concentrating instead on reading the written course material. So this is what I did also in this case, plowing the thick course book “Elementary Classical Analysis” by Marsden.

Unfortunately, every two pages or so, I would get stuck in the mathematical arguments. This forced me to permanently occupy the poor professor’s premises during, and often also after, his office hours. Fortunately, I was the only one daring to do so. The often heated discussions that resulted usually ended with realising that my lack of understanding had its cause in printing errors or errors of presentation, and with Tosio congratulating me for pointing out these small issues in the book.

When it was time for the finals, Tosio had thought to make things easy for us students, by starting with two very simple warming-up questions, that actually belonged to the basic course, which I had never taken (not being prerequisite for the seminar I actually was interested in). Naturally, I was unable to answer those, but did my best to scribble in some formulas nonetheless. The last two questions were far more interesting and to the point, since they consisted of propositions we had to prove, but which had hitherto not been treated in class. Fortunately, both had been given as exercises in Marsden’s book and solved by me at home. I guess that only a few of the students were able to provide the right answers.

The week after, I visited Tosio for the last time, to discuss some final issues with Marsden’s book and to ask him, how I should repeat the course, which I was sure I had failed. To my surprise, he had given me an A grade and motivated it by saying that it was more important for the students to have independent thinking than slavishly repeated knowledge learnt by heart. He also conveyed to me Marsden’s gratitude for helping him “proof-read” his first edition with my comments, which Tosio had forwarded to his colleague forthwith. I think this story shows a bit the highly intellectual, but at the same time free-wheeling, atmosphere prevalent in Berkeley in those days. Let me just corroborate this by a citation, mentioning just the first of Tosio’s many achievements as scientist,

“Kato achieved early mathematical fame with his proof, published in 1951, showing the self-adjointness of stationary Schrödinger operators for physically realistic singular potentials. This result crowned a program, initiated by John von Neumann, of providing a consistent mathematical foundation for nonrelativistic quantum mechanics.” (UCB website)

So, there you have it; both Professor Kato’s and my credentials firmly established! Now the time is ripe to tell the story of the reunion with Professor Thomas Marschak. We have to thank Lars for this, for he asked me, when he heard I would be staying in Berkeley, whether Thomas was still in office. I took this as a challenge and, already in the first week of my stay here, I trudged up to the newly built Haas School of Business, an impressive, if just a bit too bulky, building complex high up on campus.

You may recall that this was the mellow week of students having a good time on Memorial Glade. In the sunny weather of early April, also Haas seethed with activities, from free dancing to collecting funds for the graduation ceremonies to be held in May. As a former student of the good professor, I of course put some money in the collection box, asking the two youngsters you see below, whether they knew Professor Marschak. As answer I got an enthusiastic “Yes”; they knew him indeed, and appreciated him, as their teacher in decision and information theory. Somewhat taken aback by this amazing staying power of an octogenarian I rushed up to Thomas’ office, but had no luck in finding him there that day.
Fellow (young) students of Professor Marschak
Since I don’t have a phone here in Berkeley, I e-mailed him my greetings, asking for a meeting to pay my respects. Alas, no answer was forthcoming during the following weeks and I almost forgot about this initiative, having plenty of other blog postings to prepare and publish. But the week before last, bad conscience caught up with me, urging me to call Thomas on a pay phone, only to get a peep from his answering machine. Stating my business, I indicated that I would follow up the call with a renewed e-mail. This time I got a very polite answer, inviting me over to his office on Monday last.

I can tell you that the good professor still looked a spritely middle age, not at all like the wizened wizard you might have expected. His welcome was cordial and he was eager to recall the seminar I had the privilege of attending 33 years ago. His eyes lit up when I told him that he had asked us students, at every second meeting, to present our own topics of interest, leaving only half of the seminar to his prepared lectures. This made him recall the course and - at least I hope - my humble participation.

He added that it would be impossible to have such an educational set-up for present-day students, not even graduate students; the young generation was far to impatient and focussed on efficient transfer of knowledge to accept such a scheme. I thought that the students may have a point there if they had the ambition to finish graduate studies within four standard years, concurrent with extra-curricular activities such as the one shown below.

I then asked him how it was possible to stay in office at the venerable age of 80. Apparently, a relatively recent Federal Law had made it possible for tenured professors to stay on active duty after their normal pension age, if they so wished. There was a cut-off date however, the Law applying only to teachers born after – if I remember it right - 1924. This affected his colleague, John Harsanyi, who had to leave upon reaching pension age, so Nobel Laureate he was. He deplored that Swedish professors did not have the same freedom to stay on, whilst asking me to convey his regards to Professor Lars Werin, whom he had met shortly back in 1982.

From this we switched our discussion to two friends of mine who also had participated in the seminar, or in the more lengthy one-year course. The first, Pavel Pelikan, he remembered very well. He had met him already back in the sixties, whilst being a visiting scholar in Yugoslavia and participating in a conference in Prague from there. Subsequently, Pavel had received a grant to visit Berkeley for a year. Thomas was intrigued to hear that I knew Pavel from his time at the Swedish Institute for Industrial Research. He also recalled Eva (see my posting on “El Escorial en Alta California”) who not only had taken the course, but later also had stayed shortly as scholar at UCB.
Fellow (more mature) students of Professor Marschak
Finally we had a short discussion about his research activities. To my surprise, he was as active in research as in education. He was very occupied with a theme that appears to me as current in Sweden as in the States, the role of improved information, through computerization, in increasing productivity. He was not sure in his mind, whether computerized information was a complement or a substitute to traditional production factors and thrived to investigate this, treating information not as an on/off choice, rather, dealing with it in the form of increasing degrees of refinement.

After this interesting discussion, which took more than an hour, we bid each other farewell, somewhat sadly, for would we ever meet again? Thomas will go off to a well-earned holiday in France after the finals, whereas I will stay in Berkeley two more weeks for new experiences and blog postings. When I left Haas, trying to think about the topic for the next posting, the impressive staircase I had to descend welcomed me with a light drizzle. This brought back some melancholic thoughts and I decided to slowly amble home along the nature paths crossing campus, whilst paying tribute to my numerous memories from a time long gone.


kari_lantto said...

Those were the days. I'm sure that all the stories you brought back to Stockholm were the reason I decided to go to the US too. And I also remember your encouragement; you almost pushed me over the Atlantic. Comeing back I believe I "pushed" a few students over there myself. Those were the days.

Per Wijkman said...

Dear Emil,
As additional proof, should any be needed, that eternal life does indeed exist in Academia, I cite the example of Professor Pavel Pelikan who appears in your blog 23. A few days ago, Pavel appeared at the Mölle conference and presented a paper. He had not aged since his days in Berkeley and his paper was characterized by the same ability to formulate uncomfortable but relevant questions and logically persue the answers as characterized his papers 30 years ago. Time had stood still since I saw him last. Ah you fortunate band of Berkeley brothers!

Pavel Pelikan said...

Dear Emil,

It was a very nice surprise to get a mail from you, moreover with good news about Tom Marschak. I have the best memories of him and his father, they took excellent care of me when I was visiting Berkeley in the fall of 1967.

These days I am quite busy, a paper of mine was just accepted for publication in Journal of Evolutionary Economics, and I am trying to make there some last minute's improvements. Otherwise another paper was just published in KYKLOS. This deals with the problem of unequally bounded rationality, which I mentioned to you some 10 years ago during my visit in Bruxelles.

And what are your projects after the visit in Berkeley. Are you returning to Bruxelles, or Sweden, or Austria - or have you found another nice place?

So now when we have regained contact, let's maintain it!

Eva Meyersson Milgrom said...

Well I am so happy to see all these comments and that you Pavel are doing so well. And you sure have planted some very important thoughts in my thinking, and that stuck. Cannot wait to see you on Nybrogatan again this summer.
Emil, see these blogs these blogs they have all sorts of funny consequences dont they. Marschak the older and Roy Radner's work on Teams did inspire my thesis, and I have one very important citation from them in my PhD thesis despite the fact that I am a sociologist.
cheers to everyone


Randall Morgan said...

I am finally getting around to looking at your blog. You are an extremely accomplished photographer, and I enjoyed the photos of Stanford (where I earned an MA) and UC Berkeley (where I earned a BA) very much. Stanford architecture is easy to shoot because of its marvelous symmetry, but not easy to shoot well, which depends on how one uses the light, which you do very well. You've captured the beauty of Cal, too. It was interesting to learn of your past associations at Berkeley.

All the best in your interesting project.


Anonymous said...

Dear Emil
I am forwarding your e-links to my son Jose who is a prospective graduate student at UCB.
As the main funding source of this educational endeavour, I just hope he goes a bit faster in completing his PhD than other former UCB students (and you know what I mean).
I have been thinking a lot about you recently because I have taken a crash course on Austrian Economics.
It is amazing how economists, including the Austrians could be brilliant and silly at the same time. The most surprising thing is that neo-Austrians insist in defending those aspects of Austrian economics that jsut do not work. Marx talked about the fetishism of commodities but in economics we also have fetishists among theories who mix up instruments (secondary stuff)and ideas (important stuff). Any way, Austrians are not the only ones.
Best regards and enjoy the time you got left in CA.

Emil Ems said...

I am extremely pleased to see such a comprehensive group of illuster commentators this time.

Dear Kari,
I am glad that I may have made a small contribution to your urge to go to Berkeley. I hope you enjoyed your stay here as much as I did then and do again now.

Dear Per,
Thank you kindly for recalling, for our benefit, the clear intellect that can reside in a mature person, such as, yourself, Lars, myself and, above all, Pavel.

Dear Pavel,
I am very pleased to hear that things are going well for you, research-wise and that you can keep the flame burning, whilst the rest of us are already looking forward to, if not enjoying, a well-earned retirement.
I have re-invented myself as (Gentleman) photographer and travel journalist and my current base is Stockholm.

Dear Eva,
I am as pleased as you are, that we seem to have a virtual re-union of like spirits here on this blog.

Dear Randall,
I am humbled by your kind words about my photography, the more pleasing since they come from a fellow artisan, and a highly experienced professional in the field at that!

Dear Paco,
Welcome to the Community of blog commentators! You are only the second of my former colleagues from the Commission to respond, and I am looking forward to other colleagues to join the party.

Unfortunately, my knowledge of the Austrian School is too limited to respond in a sensible way to your excellent exposé of its short-comings. The only piece of thinking I am retaining from this August Club is the Theory of Over-Investing, due to keeping the rate of interest below the "natural" rate. It seems that this theory provides an apt explanation for the run-up to the current global crisis, as it did for the run-up to the Great Depression. I am not sure, however, what conclusions to draw from this in terms of economic policy to pursue at present. After all, I am not a Nobel Laureate, as my honored countryman von Hayek. If he would still be alive, he certainly would be able to come up with an appropriate answer.

kari_lantto said...

Well, I did not make it all the way to Berkeley. Princeton was my great experience. Good reasons why, I hardly remember. Peter Bohm knew Baumol, and Mark Sharefkin knew Sonnenschein, so that made a couple of letters of recommendation.
Nevertheless, my stay there became fantastic by accidents. The main one being that Joe Stiglitz owed a lot of teaching, and had decided to do it all during my stay there. That made a very good introduction to the economics of assymetric information. Nothing that important has ever happened to me.
So you went to the US to learn that stuff, I just stumbled on it.

Lars Werin said...

Dear Emil,
I liked to read about your academic achievements at Berkeley, and especially your meeting with Thomas Marschak. Thank you for forwarding his regards to me, but frankly, I wonder whether he remembers me. We talked at most 30 minutes, probably around 20 only, but the topic of our talk was nice and positive, namely you. I remember him as a soft-spoken, even a little bit shy perhaps, thoroughly intellectual person.

You say you discussed the role of the new information techniques in increasing productivity. Remember what Robert Solow said about a dozen years ago? He was mystified by the fact that all this investment and all these efforts devoted to computerization, internet, etc. did not show up in productivity statistics. Perhaps they do now. Or have they just prevented a productivity decline that would have occurred otherwise? Emil, please go on like you do, and write your full memoirs when you are back.

Lorenzo Brown said...

Hey, Emil,
Just a note to let you know that, although I was not a part of the California experiences you blog about, I'm finding it all fascinating.

Roland Andersson said...

Dear Emil.
I did not remember that I was the one who recommended you to spend your post doctoral time in Berkeley. But from the description of your sentimental journey you must have spent a good time there as well as the time you have spent there recently and I am glad for that. And nearly all your teachers have become Nobel Prizers! So the class of the teaching that you received could not have been better.

During my stay 1972-73 I was also taught by Daniel MacFadden, at that time a young man. I met him several years later when he had become a Nobel Prizer. He did not recognize me as your teachers did with you. But you are a more carismatic person than I am, so that was not so curious. I had also William Alonso as one of my teachers. But my main teachers were Roland Artle and Pravin Varaiya, since my topic at that time was Urban Economics and it was wonderful to have such teachers and mentors in my research.

Since that time now nearly forty years ago I have visited Berkeley a dozen times. During the last ten years I have had a close collaboration with John Quigley at Haas Business School together with Mats Wilhelmsson, a former PhD student of mine, now a Full Professor at KTH. So, I have been working as Visiting Professor in this quite ugly building. Together we have written several papers about the effects of universities on the Swedish regions patents and productivity. Our last paper on this topic was published in Journal of Urban Economics last year. Maybe you have read some of our more popular articles about our results in Ekonomisk Debatt. A summarizing article about our research journey will be published in Ekonomisk Debatt in the autumn.

I have still a close contact with my former teacher and mentor Roland Artle. I consider him as the incarnation of the concept of a real gentleman. Unfortunately he has now got skin cancer in his head and was operated for that. With his grim humor he described the operation as if he was scalped like by Indians, as they used to do with their enemies. Hopefully he will make it. I cross my fingers.

Emil, I have admired your excellent photographs by which you have illustrated all your blogs and also for your patience to write all these blogs for us. Thank you!

Your collegue Roland Andersson

Emil Ems said...

Dear Roland,
I am immensely pleased to see you among the illuster commentators to this blog posting, in particular, since you are among the main originators of it all! As to charisma, in my humble opinion, you need not stand back to anyone, with your cool appearance of man of the plains, coupled with endless energy to enrich the realm of applied regional economics!

Brian Collins said...

Emil, I'm glad you were finally able to meet with Professor Marschak. And thank you for the donation! Your blog is very well-written, and your experiences at Berkeley have been fun to read.

Anonymous said...

Lieber Emil!
Eine wirklich beeindruckende Geschichte; aktiver Professor mit 80…wenn man die Gesundheit hat eine gute Sache. Habe mehrere Juristen in Wien gekannt, die sich mit 80 ebenfalls noch aktiv bei der Akademie der Wissenschaften eingebracht haben, auch mit Vorträgen und Diskussionsbeiträgen, von denen so manch jüngerer Professor noch etwas lernen konnte. Es waren Menschen bei denen Beruf und Berufung Hand in Hand gingen.

Ich wünsche uns auch noch so viel Energie bis ins hohe Alter.

Auch mein Vater hat übrigens noch jahrelang nach seiner Emeritierung publiziert und Dissertanten betreut (er war Geologe und wurde leider nicht 80).

Viele Grüße,