Monday, October 15, 2007

Leo Hurwicz, Nobel Prize, resounding emotional intelligence

At the age of 90, Leonid "Leo" Hurwicz has received the Nobel Prize for Economics, the oldest person to receive this honor.

Leo Hurwicz was born in 1917 and received his LL.M. (master of laws degree) from Warsaw University, Poland in 1938. Was this to be his destiny in life? No, in 1939 he was studying at the London School of Economics, and already was working in his chosen field of economics, with several publications in the pipeline (first came out in 1944).

Hurwicz' life was not an easy one. His Jewish family was displaced to Moscow a few months before the October Revolution, and then returned to Warsaw. According to wikipedia, "After the start of the Second World War, he was forced to move to Portugal, and finally to the United States. When Hitler invaded Poland, Hurwicz became a refugee and continued his studies at Harvard and the University of Chicago. His parents and brother fled Warsaw only to be arrested and sent to Soviet labor camps."

By 1977, Hurwicz was teaching at the University of Minnesota, where he taught for more than half a century (since 1951), and was named Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association.

Hurwicz continued his work, and also his dedication to teaching and helping others. In the 50s, he worked with Kenneth Arrow, who became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Economics prize (in 1972). Later, he was the graduate advisor to Daniel McFadden, who received the Economics prize in 2000.

Hurwicz remained steadfast on his path of studying Economics, teaching it, and fostering the growth of others. Accounts of his emotional intelligence are resounding.

According to Minnesota Public radio, he is "known as a gentle and supportive soul with a demanding intellect." One of his colleagues, V. V. Chari described him as "humble ... [h]e treated everybody as his intellectual equal, even though the vast majority of us were not." Chari said Hurwicz' experiences and his ability to connect with ordinary people shaped his high-performing intellect.

U of M President Robert Bruininks said Hurwicz characteristically downplayed his own accomplishments. He also described him as a "very humble person" who was deeply interested in teaching and his students. He described him as "a wonderful, gracious colleague. But through his work, he has had a profound impact on the study of economics around the world."

Typically, when learning of the award, Hurwicz brought it all together. "I really didn't expect it," he said. "There were times when other people said I was on the short list but as time passed and nothing happened I didn't expect the recognition would come because people who were familiar with my work were slowly dying off."

He added, "I realize there's a limit to how many names they can put on a prize, but I just wanted to stress it's not just my own accomplishment but the help, collaboration from these many other people."

In speaking with the Nobel folks on the phone, Hurwicz said, "I hope that others who deserve it also got it, and that of all applications of mechanism design he was most pleased to see it inform welfare economics." (

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