In memory of Marty Weitzman, a man intolerant of humbug and pomposity

Topics Environment | economics

There are speculations about his falling into depression after being passed over by the Nobel Committee last October
In the midst of the hullabaloo around the United Nations Climate Action Summit I kept on remembering my friend Marty Weitzman, one of the great environmental economists, who passed away a few weeks back.

I first met Marty around the time I started teaching at MIT many decades back. The first thing that struck me about him was his accent — it sounded like a deep New York street drawl, which at first I had some difficulty in following. (I don’t know if his early years in a New York orphanage was responsible for this. His mother died when he was one-year old, and his father recently back from his military service in the War, could not take care of him, and gave him over to an orphanage. Weitzman is actually the surname of his foster parents.) 

But soon I got used to his accent and his charming informality.  At that time he was a leftist, fresh from his formative student years in the tumultuous sixties. He was a technically sophisticated economist, but unlike many others of his ilk, he grappled with big systemic issues, which particularly attracted me. We spent many afternoons and evenings discussing those issues, but unlike many on the left he was a maverick, spurning clichés and thinking always out of the box. For a time his main specialisation was comparative economic systems; he even learned Russian for that purpose. 

Over the years, his economics became somewhat less radical. He once told me that in a recent visit to his parents’ summer cottage he discovered on a shelf his heavily marked old copy of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. In his youthful radical days he had marked many of Hayek’s passages there with loud dismissive comments like “BS-BS-BS”. But now, he told me, he was surprised to find how some of the issues Hayek raised were important, and he felt compelled to erase those profane markings. When in the early 1990s I wrote an article about how the old idea of market socialism (using the market mechanism to achieve objectives of social justice) needs to be reformulated to take into account many of the incentive, information and organisational issues raised by Hayek, Marty was a particularly appreciative reader. 

He once attended a seminar I gave on the theory of sharecropping in agriculture. Some years later he told me that the more he thought about the idea of sharecropping, the more he became attracted to the application of the general idea to a systemic level, reforming capitalism with a share economy (he later wrote a book on the subject), where through profit-sharing labour and capital can coordinate to resolve the issues of unemployment and stagnation. This was typical of Marty, a brilliant exploration in a new direction, following on the germ of an age-old idea. 

His “Prices vs. Quantities” 1974 paper was, of course, a path-breaking paper. Until then most of us believed in the simple duality of the price-quantity relation, which he showed breaking down when there is uncertainty. Later, this was applied in an important way in controlling environmental pollution, quantitative controls sometimes dominating the tax-subsidy solution with the prevailing uncertainty.

He gradually moved to the field of environmental economics, soon becoming a leader in the field, challenging some of the standard cost-benefit calculations, when we cannot ignore the small but not entirely negligible probability (in “fat-tailed distributions”) of catastrophic risk in the matter of climate change from greenhouse gas emissions. So his pleading for control of those emissions became particularly urgent and influential. The main message of his 2015 book, Climate Shock (with his student, Gernot Wagner) is: “Most everything we know tells us climate change is bad. Most everything we don’t know tells us it’s probably much worse.”

He also thought deeply about the rate at which society should discount the benefit of future generations vis-à-vis that of the current generation and how that rate changes over time. (The more you value the current generation’s welfare, the higher in general is that discount rate). Some years back I remember receiving, like several other economists in the field, an email from him asking us for our vote on the appropriate social rate of discount. I responded to him, with tongue in cheek, saying, “Marty, of course, it is 2 per cent!”

He has also important papers on the economic theory of how to preserve bio-diversity under strict budget constraints (one of them is appropriately titled, “Noah’s Ark”, but published in a technical journal like Econometrica). All of these papers are marked by deep theoretical insights along with practical operational ideas for policy implementation.

He was intolerant of humbug and pomposity. When he was teaching at Yale after his Ph.D at MIT, I asked him, as Yale compared to MIT should have more of the classical humanities faculty, if he interacts with them, given his wide-ranging interests. He derisively told me, when he saw them in the faculty club, they were in the habit of speaking only in Latin, unintelligible to him, a mere New York Jew!

It was a great shock to me when I heard that he took his own life. There are speculations about his falling into depression after being passed over by the Nobel Committee last October when they awarded the Prize on environmental economics. If that is true, it is one more example of the simple fact that the Nobel Prize has increased the sum total of human unhappiness. (Many years back when I said this to Amartya Sen, he told me that he agrees to this, but he would not put it in such crass utilitarian terms).

Prize or not, very few people will doubt that we have just lost one of the most brilliant environmental economists in the world.  
The writer is professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley 

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