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Nobel Prize winners have Jewish, Chicago connections

Three Jewish scholars were awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economic Science in October.

Leonid Hurwicz image
Leo Hurwicz at a special reception held in his honor Oct. 23 at the University of Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Three Jewish scholars, two with Chicago connections, were awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economic Science in October.

Leonid Hurwicz, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and former researcher at the University of Chicago; Roger B. Myerson, a University of Chicago professor; and Eric S. Maskin of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, N.J., were honored for their joint work on mechanism design theory.

Hurwicz, who at 90 years of age is the oldest person ever to win a Nobel Prize, was born in Moscow and grew up in Warsaw. He was in Switzerland when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and began their slaughter of the Jewish population. Michael C. Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF/JF) and Hurwicz’s cousin, recalls the steps his family took to bring Hurwicz to the United States in 1940.

“My father used to talk of how he and my uncles went to Springfield to meet with Gov. Horner and get the papers,” Kotzin said. “When Leo arrived in Chicago, he lived with my grandmother on the North Side.”

Hurwicz’s first job here was as a research assistant at the University of Chicago. Meanwhile, his immediate family back in Poland traveled eastward and his father ended up in a labor camp in Russia.

“It was emotionally very difficult because there were months and months where I had no word from them,” Hurwicz said. After America entered the war, he temporarily abandoned economics and began studying meteorology so that he could become a meteorologist in the U.S. Navy Air Corps. “There were many people in that position at the time that wanted to make a contribution on the side of the U.S.”

After surviving the war, his parents came to Chicago, where his father taught Russian language and literature at the University of Chicago and Roosevelt University. His brother, Henry, also came to the States and now lives in California.

Hurwicz joined the University of Minnesota faculty in the 1950s and taught there until his retirement in the late 1980s, though he continued to teach and do research for many additional years. He was very surprised to receive a phone call from Stockholm telling him he had received the award. “I was convinced it was some stupid joke,” he said. “It’s a great honor and I’m very proud to be benefiting from that.”

Named Regents Professor Emeritus by the University of Minnesota, Hurwicz taught in the areas of theory, welfare economics, public economics, mechanisms and institutions, and mathematical economics. His research included comparison and analysis of systems and techniques of economic organization, welfare economics, game-theoretic implementation of social choice goals, and modeling economic institutions.

Roger B. Myerson, 56, an economist and expert on game theory, further developed, along with Maskin, the mechanism design theory initiated by Hurwicz. After learning he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, his first reaction was a sense of privilege to have his name listed together with Hurwicz and Maskin for an honor that stands as a record of the most important advances in the field of economics.

Prior to joining the University of Chicago in 2001, Myerson was the Harold L. Stuart Professor of Decision Sciences at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, where he conducted much of his Nobel-winning research. He grew up in Newton, Mass., and attended Harvard, where he earned his doctorate in applied mathematics in 1976.

While living in the Chicago area, Myerson has been a long-time donor to JUF/JF. In talking about his sense of Jewish identity, he said:

“As a child I was raised in the Reform Jewish tradition, so I identify strongly with its emphasis on informed choice: that we may each choose different parts of the Jewish tradition to cultivate in our individual lives, but that we should all be interested in learning about the Jewish tradition so that our individual choices will be well informed.” Hurwicz, Maskin and Myerson’s work develops new ways of looking at social problems in order to see their solutions more clearly.

According to the Nobel Prize website, “Mechanism design theory has greatly enhanced the understanding of the properties of optimal allocation mechanisms, accounting for individuals' incentives and private information. The theory helps to distinguish situations in which markets work well from those in which they do not. It has helped economists identify efficient trading mechanisms, regulation schemes and voting procedures. Today, mechanism design theory plays a central role in many areas of economics and parts of political science.”

“Economics textbooks today have chapters on game theory and mechanism design that include ideas that I, among others, first helped to articulate,” Myerson said. “That is the greatest success a scholar can hope for.”

“Originally people were skeptical about that particular approach,” Hurwicz said. “Over the decades younger generations adopted these techniques. Ultimately my contribution will be recognized and I think will help make economics more valuable as a science.”

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