It is a bit ironic that yesterday, when the New York Times posted its obituary of the M.I.T. economist Paul A. Samuelson on its home page, the story immediately to the left reported the latest economic proclamation by Larry Summers, the former Harvard president who is now President Obama’s chief economic adviser, and who was also Samuelson’s nephew. Samuelson, who died yesterday at 94, was among a generation of Nobel Prize-winning economists who catapulted from education-obsessed Jewish immigrant households into the stratosphere of American academia on the strength of their own genius, upsetting the genteel order of the Ivy League. As a young tyro at Harvard, Samuelson provoked his department chairman, Harold Hitchings Burbank, by both publishing an enormously successful dissertation on using a mathematical approach to economics and by arguing that economists should spend more time thinking about why there were bread lines outside their windows—that is, about real people, rather than abstract factors. Burbank denied Samuelson a professorship. (His Jewish colleague Robert Solow later noted, “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?”) Samuelson defected to M.I.T., where he spent the rest of his professional life; the enormously successful publication of his dissertation, Samuelson said, was “sweet revenge” against Burbank. We can only surmise that when Summers— another smart, Jewish Keynesian—became one of the youngest professors ever to win tenure at Harvard a half-century later, it was even sweeter for his uncle.
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Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.