Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Remembering Anna Jacobson Schwartz, 1915-2012

Anna Jacobson Schwartz is probably best-known today as co-author with Milton Friedman of the 1963 classic, A Monetary History of the United States. But her extraordinary career covered so much more. The Fall 2013 newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) publishes eight remembrances of Schwartz from a memorial service held at the National Bureau of Economic Research in April 2013. Here are a few of the points that caught my eye. 

After Schwartz graduated from Barnard College at age 18, and completed her masters' degree at Columbia a year later, she worked for several years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Social Science Research Council before joining the research staff at the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1941. As James Poterba writes: "With the exception of a brief period in the early 1980s when she served as Staff Director for the U.S. Commission on the Role of Gold in the Domestic and International Monetary Systems and was the primary author for the first volume of the commission’s
report, Anna remained an NBER affiliate for the next 71 years. At the time of her death, she had the longest NBER affiliation of any researcher—by several decades. Although Anna held a number of adjunct teaching positions during the course of her career, the NBER was always her primary
affiliation." As Allan Meltzer wrote: "I want to say that the fact that Anna never received an appointment at any major university is the clearest example I know of discrimination against women in the past."

Several of the speakers remembered her direct and no-nonsense intellectual style, over decades of papers, books, and NBER seminars. Here's a story from William Poole about a discussion with Schwartz in mid-2008:

"I argued with her that the U.S. economy was in fact doomed to financial crisis in early 2006 when Ben Bernanke took office. By that time, almost all the rotten subprime paper had been created and much had been included in risky portfolios of undercapitalized financial firms. Thus, I argued to Anna, if the Fed had allowed Bear Stearns to fail, the crisis would have become acute at that time instead of six months later when Lehman failed. Her response, in the mildly disapproving but friendly tone she always used with friends, was, “Ah, Bill. But the economy will go on after the financial crisis. What the Fed has done, which would not have much affected the course of the financial crisis anyway on your own argument, has created a serious long-run problem. Given Lehman, and weak public understanding, the Fed has created the presumption that any large financial firm in trouble will be bailed out. That presumption will be with us for many years, long after the memory of the financial crisis has dimmed.” ...
Of course, she was right—very right. She not only understood the facts of economic history but also why history developed the way it did. ... She also understood that it could take decades to undo an unwise policy decision. And here we are. What the public “knows,” what the market “knows,” and what Congress “knows,” is that letting Lehman fail was a mistake. The now firmly embedded presumption in government and market behavior—the presumption of a bailout of any large financial firm in trouble—did not have to be this way."
(Here's a Wall Street Journal article from October 2008 reporting Schwartz's views.)

And a number of the speakers remembered her love of work, balanced with her commitment to family and personal life.  Michael Bordo, who co-authored 30 articles and two books with her, noted: "What I remember most about Anna is how much she loved her work. Her whole life was organized around going to the office. She officially retired from the Bureau when she was 65, but she didn’t stop working until she was 94. She went into the Bureau every day when she was in her eighties and nineties, and she still put in a full eight-hour day. ... Yet she was a balanced person. She had a great family—Isaac, a caring husband with a great sense of humor, who died in 1999, four children, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren, and they used to come into New York to see her often."

Eloise Pasachoff, one of Schwartz's grandchildren, captured this theme of a life lived full-speed ahead especially nicely:

"Notwithstanding the popular saying to the contrary, it is possible to get to your deathbed and wish you had spent more time at the office. Not because you don’t wish you’d had more time with your family, too; not because you don’t have a full and rich and interesting personal life; but because what you do all day long at work grips you with a passion you want to pursue. There are more problems to solve, more questions to answer, more cases to build, more theories to debunk. Here was the most reliable conversation starter with my grandmother: “What are you working on?” And in her answer, she brooked no nonsense.  ... What else did she want to do? She wanted to work full time and raise four kids. So she got help with excellent childcare. ... I learned from my grandmother ... to take time to take pleasure in the pleasures of life. My grandmother spent several hours every weekend listening to the Met’s opera broadcast. She loved a good Trollope novel. She made sure she didn’t miss a day of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. She relished her favorite foods. For a while, when I was living near her, we had dinner once a week, and it was wonderful to eat with someone who took such enjoyment over a meal. She loved trout; she loved stuffed cabbage; she loved pineapple upside-down cake; she loved rice pudding. And I loved spending time with this amazing woman who had such a rich and full and ongoing life.
I think I have a bigger lesson, and it’s about what they call “work-life balance.” Except when I think about my grandmother’s example, I want to call it “work-life joy.”
I like the idea of "work-life joy" very much.