“It’s the economy, stupid”

  • Jerzy Neyman
  • Simon Kuznets
  • Arthur Frank Burns
  • Paul Krugman
  • Alan Greenspan
  • Ben Shalom Bernanke
  • Janet Yellen

Scholars originating from the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth played a considerable role in the development of economics as a scientific discipline in the US. Some of these figures even received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

The development of economics as a science would not have been possible without statistics. Jerzy Neyman (1894–1981), born Jerzy Spława-Neyman, was a Polish mathematician and statistician who laid the foundations for statistics in the US. He was born in Bendery, southern Moldova. His family descended from a long line of Polish nobles and military officers that owned estates in Ukraine. He graduated from high school in Kamianets-Podilskyi, Podolia and then started his studies at Kharkiv University. Between 1917 and 1921 he worked at the Kharkiv Institute of Technology. Similar success was also enjoyed by many others. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Kharkiv attracted a huge number of students from the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The city is located in Eastern Ukraine. This part of the country, which was a sparsely populated region of the Great Steppe, was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Union/Commonwealth from the end of the 14th century until the middle of the 17th century. Following this, the territory was conquered by Russia. Kharkiv was founded in 1654 by settlers who fled the bloody civil war that engulfed central Ukraine, which remained under the control of the Commonwealth. Neyman left Kharkiv for Poland as a result of the Russian Revolution and in 1938 he moved to the US. He created the Statistical Laboratory at Berkeley, which for decades did work for the government and many public institutions. Due to this, it became the key American statistical research center. In 1955 he managed to establish a separate statistics department at the university. Consequently, Neyman is recognized as a scholar that made statistics one of America’s key scientific disciplines.

University of California, Berkeley, Source: Shutterstock

Kharkiv, Source: Shutterstock

Simon Kuznets (1901–1985) was an American economist and statistician who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1971. Kuznets was also a student in Kharkiv. He was born in the town of Pinsk, Polesia (present-day Belarus) to Jewish parents. His mother was from Rivne, Volhynia, which is located in modern Ukraine. At the beginning of the 20th century Jews made up around 75 per cent of the population of Pinsk. The Jews of Pinsk had been for several centuries one of the three leading communities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They played a key role in the economic life of the country. Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895), a prominent Russian novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and journalist, visited the town and wrote that “It seems Jews are everywhere in Pinsk. Not only the whole town but also the trade of the whole country is thriving thanks to their activity. Craftsmen, merchants, hackney drivers – all of them are Jews, and nothing can happen here without a Jew”. Kuznets completed his schooling in Rivne and then started his studies at the Kharkiv Institute of Commerce. In 1922 Kuznets migrated to the US. He taught at various American universities and finally became a professor of Harvard University.  His name is closely associated with the growth of modern economics as an empirical discipline in the US. He also contributed to the development of statistical research methods and the emergence of quantitative economic history. His work is credited with fueling the so-called “Keynesian revolution”. It is worth remembering that Kuznets was greatly influenced by the methodologies that he learnt in Kharkiv. The city recognized Kuznets as one of its most notable historical figures. Since 2013 the Kharkiv National University of Economics is named after Kuznets, with a bust of himself also erected outside another university.

Arthur Frank Burns (1904–1987) was another prominent American economist whose career alternated between academia and government. For many decades Burns taught and conducted research at Rutgers University and Columbia University. Under Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, he was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. Under President Richard Nixon, he became the first to gain the post of counselor. Burns was born into a Jewish family in Stanislau (now Ivano-Frankivsk) in Eastern Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He showed signs of intelligence very early in his childhood. For instance, he translated the Talmud into Polish and Ukrainian by age six and debated socialism at age nine. In 1914, he moved to the US with his parents.

Paul Krugman, an American economist, is another Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences who originated from the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. His paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1922 from Brest, the capital of Polesia in Belarus. At that time the city was a part of Poland. Krugman was born in Albany, New York in 1955. Krugman was for many years a professor of economics at Princeton University and he retired in 2015. Today he is a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a columnist for The New York Times. In 2008, Krugman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography. Indeed, Krugman’s works help explain patterns of international trade and the geographic distribution of economic activity. He examines the effects of consumer preferences for diverse goods and services and economies of scale.

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Federal Reserve Board Building, Washingtown DC, Source: Shutterstock

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Janet Yellen being sworn in by Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, Source: Wikipedia

Economists with family roots from the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also played an important role in the US government and its economic and financial policies. For instance, from 1987 to 2018 all the chairs of the Federal Reserve could at least partly trace their origins back to Belarus, Ukraine, or eastern Poland. Alan Greenspan served five terms as the 13th chair of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. This was the second-longest term ever served in that position. His Jewish ancestors came to the US from Buchach, Eastern Galicia. The family of Ben Shalom Bernanke, Greenspan’s successor, also migrated to the US from Eastern Galicia (Przemyśl). Bernanke held the post of chair from 2006 to 2014. During his tenure, Bernanke oversaw the Federal Reserve’s response to the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, for which he was named the 2009 Time Person of the Year. Bernanke was replaced by Janet Yellen, who occupied that post until 2018. Since January 2021 she has been serving as the 78th secretary of the treasury. She is the first woman in history to hold either role. One of her maternal grandparents was a Jew from Suwałki.