Remarks at the Kornai Farewell
Janos Kornai joined the Harvard economics department in 1986 and retired in 2002. In the sixteen years he spent at Harvard, he had a profound influence on the department and on the economics profession more generally.
Janos had a half-time appointment at Harvard. That meant that he and Zsuzsa alternated between Cambridge and Budapest every six months. Harvard doesn’t normally allow arrangements like that, but this was a special case. It was thought that Janos was such an important commentator on Hungarian and Eastern European affairs that he should be allowed a lot time close to the scene. And this view was validated in spades a few years later, when Hungary and other Eastern European countries started the transformation from socialism to market economies. Having Janos there as an eyewitness was invaluable.
At Harvard, Janos offered courses on the socialist economy, on comparisons between socialism and capitalism, and on the big economic transition toward markets then going on in Eastern Europe and Russia. It was generally recognized that Janos was the foremost expert in the world on all these topics, and so the courses were very popular.
But Janos probably had an even bigger influence as a PhD advisor. Interestingly, many of his advisees were Chinese. These students had come to Harvard with a deep determination to understand the remarkable and unique path that the Chinese economy took after Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms in the late 1970s. Janos was the perfect mentor for them with his unsurpassed expertise on how state-directed economies work. Indeed, building on what they learned from him, a number of these students are now among the leading economists in China.
Let me end on a personal note. I first got to know Janos when he joined Harvard and we would get together for lunch to discuss economics. He thought that I, a as a theorist, might help him formalize some of his important ideas about centrally planned economics, such as the soft- budget constraint. And, in fact, I got so interested in soft-budget constraints that I ended up writing a series of papers on the subject, one of which was with Gerard Roland and Janos himself.
But, to me, the most important outcome of those lunches was that I became good friends with Janos and Zsuzsa. We bonded over our shared love of music, film, and politics. And we also loved to argue.
One of my last arguments with Janos was an email exchange we had a couple of years ago. He had just written a forceful op-ed for the Financial Times criticizing Western economists (including himself) who had advised the Chinese government after Deng Xiaoping. He blamed them for strengthening China and so making possible what he called the “monstrous turn” of Xi Jinping. I didn’t agree with his position, but had to acknowledge that it was a powerful and unignorable view.
Now that Janos is gone, I know that I will miss his honest, blunt, and clear-eyed opinions.
And I expect that the world will miss them too.
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