Irma Adelman (1930-2017): A leading economist and outstanding Berkeley faculty member

I was very sorry to learn that Irma Adelman passed away February 24, 2017. A brilliant woman whose life story and achievements were truly awe-inspiring, Irma lived through some of the most important events of the 20th century and her research tools and ideas have impacted the lives of countless people. We were privileged to know and work with her for most of her very productive career. Irma was recently profiled in the Annual Review of Resource Economics “Conversation” series where they feature leading economists such as Arnold Harberger and Douglass North. However in this post, I want to offer a more personal perspective on Irma’s life and work.

Irma was a fighter and survivor her entire life. She was born to a well-to-do family in Romania, but her close family had to escape persecution and leave Romania for Palestine during the turmoil leading to World War II. Her family members who didn’t leave were lost forever. After graduating from high school, Irma fought in the Israeli Independence War of 1948, and after the War left for Berkeley. She completed her undergraduate studies at the business school, then earned a PhD in Economics, and got married. After graduation, she faced gender discrimination on the job market as a young tenure-track academic and despite her brilliant publications, she served as a lecturer and instructor for several years until she received her first assistant professorship at Stanford. From Stanford, she moved to Johns Hopkins, then to University of Maryland, and finally back to Berkeley, returning to her alma mater where she would remain for the rest of her career. I have always appreciated Irma’s courage and resilience. She continued to be productive until her last days (preparing a book on the Korean Economic Miracle in which she played a prominent supporting role) despite dealing with diabetes and grieving the loss of her only son, Alex. She was blessed to have her son-in-law, Robert Ubilius Adelman, who supported her lovingly until her last days.

I hosted Irma for several weeks in her transition back to Berkeley, and in our many conversations I learned to appreciate her keen sense of humor, love of art, and her incredible ability in Checkers, Backgammon, and other table games. She could talk endlessly and eloquently  about economics and politics, her feelings of guilt for leaving Israel, and worried for their long-term survival amidst the havoc of the Middle East. She established a graduate student fund to support Israeli students to study in our department. She genuinely cherished the freedom and opportunities of America, was understandably very suspicious of the Communist Block, (including recently Putin) and the political regression of Russia. But most of all, she had incredible empathy for oppressed people everywhere, and being a development economist, fighting for equality and progress was natural for her. She also spoke frequently about the difficulties and uncertainties that she encountered as a young female economist, and I appreciated the incredible dedication she had during her early years when she wrote highly technical papers while teaching many classes at Stanford and Mills College, raising a child with minimal help. In those early days, she felt especially frustrated because, while many expressed goodwill and conviction to strive for equality for women, barriers were tough to break down. She realized that having affirmative-action legislation that codified women’s rights was essential and must be expanded and maintained. Irma also believed that female perspectives expanded the conceptual scope and social relevance of economics as a discipline, meaning the exclusion of women made economics worse off than it would have been otherwise. Her career is a testament to this belief.

As an economist, Irma was ahead of her time, and I believe that her contributions have not been fully appreciated (she was considered for the Nobel Prize, and was very deserving). First, she was a true multi-disciplinarian. She realized that the standard economic framework was blind to many fundamental behavioral drivers of life—social status, household work, and striving for livelihood. With these limitations in mind, she introduced several frameworks that borrowed quantitative models from other social sciences to develop better understanding of quality of life and how policy can affect it. I recall that she recommended to one of her students, Effi Gutkind, who was looking for a dissertation topic, to go to different parts of Oakland, in laundromats and retail stores and ask different people, “if you were desperate and needed $100, what would you do to get it?” Many people answered that they would borrow, or find a short-term job or work overtime, but many men suggested they would steal and women that they would enter prostitution. This illustrates that Irma was interested in all aspects of life, and real situations, and believed that the the discipline of economics should have the capacity to capture these.

Irma was also the major force behind the development and use of social accounting matrices and computable general equilibrium (CGE) models. These frameworks try to understand and predict how resources are allocated and circulate within the economy, and have become one of the most important practical tools for large scale policy planning. While economic forecasting has its critics, governments and policy institutions around the world continue to rely on the models and methods that Irma pioneered. These tools are still in their early stages of institutionalization. With ever expanding data and computational resources, Irma’s legacy will surely continue to grow. Using CGE models, Irma helped the Korean government develop the economic plans that masterminded its growth and launched Korea to become a major global economic power, attaining living standards beyond the imagining of their ancestors. Indeed, the Korean government recognized Irma with a medal for her contributions, and the head of the Korean development agency visited Irma to reaffirm their appreciation of her only last year. More recently, when California was planning its climate change statewide policy (AB32), Irma’s student David Roland-Holst provided the long-term projections supporting the policy. Those CGE results were the only empirical evidence cited in the Governor’s Executive Order establishing the Global Warming Solutions Act.

One of Irma’s less recognized contributions was the seed of the economic idea that became known as hedonic pricing – how to measure the value of product attributes (e.g. value of a nutrient in food, value of a view from a house or mountain top). She told me that as a woman, she realized before anyone else that products vary by their qualitative characteristics, these values are reflected in prices, and therefore one should be able to estimate the value of individual characteristics from data on prices and different product attributes. As a young researcher, she approached Zvi Griliches with the idea and they collaborated and wrote a classic paper on Index of Quality Change. This paper influenced many, including her friend Kelvin Lancaster, who presented a more expansive framework to model product quality that led to the formal notion of hedonic pricing.

Most of all, Irma loved Berkeley and the University. She appreciated the education she received and many of the great life experiences she had here, and coming back was a dream come true. Her ideas and guidance affected many of us, her colleagues, students, and the profession at large. She served on the university’s most prestigious and demanding Academic Senate committee, the Budget Committee, and received the Berkeley Citation in recognition of her contribution to our campus. Irma always emphasized that while there are many prestigious, private universities, public universities, especially Berkeley, are essential because they are a proven channel for social mobility and change. Irma always emphasized that America and California gained strength from providing talented people, who had been oppressed elsewhere, the means to reach their potential, noting that both she and a Nobel Laureate, Kenneth Arrow (who also passed recently), shared Romanian roots and flourished here. Indeed Irma, Arrow and many others were the products of public institutions. Irma’s work has made economic analysis fuller, more inclusive, and provides a tool for social transformation. Her life was the very embodiment of social mobility and equal opportunity, and an example we can all aspire to.

Ken Arrow – A Great economic theorist, but an even Greater humanist

When I was an undergraduate student in Israel, I remember asking one of my professors, ‘Who is the greatest economist in the world today: Samuelson or Friedman?’ His answer surprised me: Arrow.

I was embarrassed not to know him, and asked “Who?!” My professor replied, “If you go to graduate school, you’ll learn about him.”

Indeed, when I took a few masters courses in Israel, and then later while getting my Ph.D. at Berkeley, I realized that Kenneth Arrow truly was the greatest. He impacted almost every major topic within economics. He introduced measures of risk aversion and developed tools that allow us to quantify how people respond to risky choices when they make investments or deciding whether to adopt a technology.

His work on healthcare introduced the notion of asymmetric information between a buyer (in this case, a patient) and a seller (the doctor). In the 1970s, several people received the Nobel prize by expanding this idea into different areas, and emphasizing the important role of signals, branding, screening mechanisms, etc. For example, a college degree doesn’t only provide practical knowledge, but the fact that you got it serves as a signal that you have skills worth investing in.

I was even more excited by his work on “learning-by-doing.” He realized that knowledge and technology evolve with experience and learning, and later on others developed theories that really show that the key component for economic growth is accumulated knowledge from experience and research. Arrow was among the first to start the literature on the economics of R&D. It was amazing that in almost every field, he has made immense contribution.

Arrow was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on general equilibrium that showed that under certain conditions, markets reach outcomes that are socially optimal. But in my view, his more radical work was his “impossibility theorem” that argues that voting systems don’t necessarily result in outcomes that are socially optimal. Recently, we have observed application in the spirit of this theorem in quite a few places. While I admired Arrow immensely for his creativity and breakthrough ideas, I considered him a traditional economist who believed in market solutions and embodied the status quo of advanced economics.

I discovered a totally different side of Arrow in 2006 when he presented his Galbraith Medal speech. I invited him to give the talk at the AAEA meeting in Long Beach. He answered his phone immediately and when I asked him if he was willing to give a talk in honoring Galbraith, he said, “Count me in.”

In his talk, he said that while he and Galbraith approached economics in different ways, they shared many similar views and values. Then he said that economic theory suggests that the main role of governmental intervention is to correct externalities (e.g. control pollution), provide public goods (defense, basic research), address non-competitive behavior and assure free flow of information.

But many of the government activities are in support of the poor, provision of health and education, and even foreign aid in countries without political motive. This suggests that our theory is not complete; that we have elements of compassion, community and caring that need to be incorporated into economics. The work of economic theory is far from done — we need to work with other social sciences to incorporate their insights and input into how people actually think and behave and bring it to economics. This includes better understanding of national and global communities, and recognize that we are beyond a collection of individuals and individual interests.

Later on, my friend Avishay Braverman told me that when he spoke with Arrow, he considered the most important breakthrough in economics to be the work of Kahneman and Tversky, the emergence of behavioral economics, and the merging of psychology into mainstream economics. Arrow was actively working with Dasgupta and others to incorporate environmental and social values into our national indicators of economic activity, as well as developing an economic theory of sustainability.

Arrow passed away on February 21st this year. We lost a brilliant person who not only led the way in developing economics to what it is today, but had a vision of economics as a more inclusive social science that integrates many important aspects of human behavior. A true loss for humanity and the environment.

The retirement of Angie Erickson- an end of an era

On July 1st we held a celebration on the steps of Giannini Hall as Angie Erickson retired after 33 years of service in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE) and seven years as my Assistant (I actually favor the old fashion term Secretary because it implies the keeper of secrets, or confidant). Retirements are those special events that make me reflect on the changing time- and during Angie’s  tenure we have witnessed many transitions.

group photos

I arrived at ARE as a fresh PhD student from Israel 43 years ago. Our building, Giannini Hall, looked the same as it does today (they had installed the elevator a few months before I arrived), but the internal structure was different.  It was before the advent of the personal computer and we had a large room with a typing pool that consisted of 10 very competent word processors (typists in those days) who were supervised by a powerful and amazing Japanese American woman Cookie Takayama.


Cookie was seated in a glass walled room at the entrance to the large typing room, so she could keep an eye on her  “girls”, as she called them (some older than 50). She would receive our manuscripts, and after initial review (that could result in suggestions for immediate improvement) allocated it to a member of her stuff.  Even though our staff maintained excellent standards of quality, in those days typing was a complex art form. Thus, her allocation decision of who types your paper, and when, could affect your fate. I started co-authoring papers at the time, and given my terrible accent, bad grammar and unique vocabulary (the three ingredients of what have been termed “Zilbonics”) I realized that I needed to be on her good side.  She was a wonderful conversationalist and caring person, and I got to speak with her about life and provided nuggets of useful gossip (“Dr. Rausser is likely to be hired as our next Chair”).  She slowly became my “Japanese Mother”, providing useful advice (“Americans notice when you do not wear deodorant”), and paying special attention to my manuscripts. Even now I consider her the most powerful person I met at Giannini Hall (except perhaps Harry Wellman who was the president of the UC system and had two buildings named after him). 13411971_10209455683410909_4213916386509585219_o (1)

Cookie kept tight discipline in her unit: they all arrived at 8 am, dressed elegantly but conservatively, an island of the 1950s in the midst of radicalizing Berkeley. I learned that “the girls” (which later included some boys) were wonderful and colorful people and had a great culture of friendship and mutual support. They comprised part of a professional staff that made us a great department – and Giannini Hall a wonderful place to work. Angie was 18 years old when she joined the pool in 1983, as she was recruited by her friend Amor Nolan. Cookie and her staff provided her with great practical training. I was on the faculty at that time and noticed that she became an excellent word processor quickly. She was also very noticeable for her great looks and pleasant personality, but the aspiring graduate students soon learned that she was dating Chris, who later became her husband, and with whom she shares three wonderful children.


Few years after Angie arrived, the word processing world went through the personal computer revolution. Some of the young faculty members of ARE elected to do their word processing themselves, others preferred to work closer with their typists. Around 1990 we decentralized our budget and word processing support systems. In particular, the typing pool was abolished, and faculty members who were willing to pay were assigned support staff for word processing and administration. I was assigned Amor Nolan, and Angie worked for Tony Fisher, Peter Berck and Jeff Lafrance. The improved capabilities of computers and word processing software, the introduction of the web and search engines, made the physical task of producing manuscripts less time consuming. My collaborators, mostly students, became responsible for typing the first version of most papers, and Amor was putting the finishing touch in preparing manuscript to the journals. As I became a department chair and was assigned more administrative responsibilities, I faced a growing burden of writing letters, grant applications and project reports. With Amor I developed a system whereby I dictated the first draft, we discussed some of the content, and she made it presentable. This improved my productivity, and made her job more challenging, yet I believe more interesting still.

Version 3

In 2009, Amor retired after working with me for about 19 years, and she recommended that Angie take her place. The transition was smooth, Angie exceled in interpreting Zilbonics, and Angie and I were very efficient in producing letters of recommendation, referee reports and other documents. Much of Angie’s time more recently has been occupied with organizing the annual Berkeley Bioeconomy Conference, with about 30 speakers and 100 participants. During the last few years she has taken over preparing my reimbursement forms, and other accounting and logistics matters. All together she was responsible to manage multiple administrative tasks that allowed me to allocate more time to my research and education activities.  The trust we shared, and the learning that come through joint ventures have made us a great team, and good friends. I believe that the publications that I produced and the success of programs like the ELP and MDP that I initiated were really a result of teamwork where Angie and Amor were crucial members of these teams.

This year Angie and her family decided to relocate to Auburn, CA and she retired from the University.  She has helped me to train a replacement, my past student Ben Gordon, and I believe that after adjustments I will be able to continue and be effective (and one day I might even retire). However, as I look around and reflect on the past decades, I notice that over the years most assistants in our department have either retired or been let go due to lack of resources or perceived need.  We now have mostly faculty and students and hardly any staff. It may be more cost effective, but I miss having a larger community with regular people who provide valuable services, care about the team and bring joy and friendship to the ivory tower.