Remembering Yair Mundlak, scholar and leader

I have been on a search for leaders ever since I founded the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) in 2000. Presenting real-life examples of leaders and role models is among the most effective ways to train future leaders.

Last week in Israel, while participating in a workshop honoring the memory of Professor Yair Mundlak, who passed in 2015 at the age of 87, I realized that I had stumbled on a case of a great leader. Leadership can be manifested in all fields of life: business, family, politics and academia. In the case of Yair, his leadership built a world-class academic department and introduced new research methodologies.

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Yair’s family immigrated to Israel from Poland before the Second World War. He went to an agricultural high school, fought in the Israeli Independence War of 1948, and then joined an agricultural settlement. In 1952 he was sent to UC Davis to study agronomy – he did well and in 1954 he enrolled as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, where he earned a Masters in Statistics and a PhD in agricultural economics.

He returned to Israel in 1957 to form a department of agricultural economics at Hebrew University in Rehovot.

One of the first challenges of development is to establish academic excellence in applied disciplines – this was precisely what Yair was able to do, and in the 1970s his department in Rehovot was considered one of the best in the world. Much of the credit is owed to him as its founder and leader.

So…how did he do it?

First, he obtained the necessary funding to start a large research project on the economics of the Moshavim (collective farms) in Israel. This funding allowed him to recruit a team of young scholars with backgrounds in economics and agriculture to serve as research assistants and then as teaching assistants.

The first of these assistants was my mentor and friend Eithan Hochman. Prior to this, formal economic research of farms in Israel did not exist.

The research showed to policy makers that economic considerations matter and that economic tools are useful for decision making. This insight provided the base for future study and funding. So by launching a strong research program, he was able to build a team, and create a reputation for excellence and stir demand for future studies.

Second, he established a formal sequence in economics and econometrics at the School of Agriculture in Rehovot. Israel of the 1950s was a growing country with an emerging agricultural sector and there was implicit demand for education in the economics and management of agriculture, which his new department aimed to meet.

Third, he realized that he could not maintain the program by himself, so he encouraged several of his students to get PhDs abroad, mostly at UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago[1]. These individuals have become leading scholars in their own right, expanded the range of issues addressed by the department, and provided the capacity to meet growing demand.

During my conversations with him, he emphasized that one needs to invest directly in people to augment leadership in order to build a successful program. It is not enough to be “the best” yourself; you need to have other people to build the scale and reach that result in an effective organization. And helping other people reach their potential is more challenging than reaching your own.

Fourth, while working with the government and banks he established a research center to pursue funding and finance future research effort of the department.

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Yair’s ability to establish an excellent academic organization benefited from his prominence as one of the best agricultural economists and econometricians of the 20th century[2]. Agricultural economics was established as a distinct discipline early in 1920s.

The first generation of scholars, the founding fathers[3], identified the major question it was suppose to answer, basic models and approach and stylized facts about the features of agricultural systems.

The second generation[4] included the quantifiers, who developed quantitative models of agricultural and natural resource systems, estimated key parameters and showed empirically that economic considerations and processes have significant impact that must be considered in policymaking.

The third generation were the expanders, who enlarged the range of techniques and consideration and issues considered by agricultural economists to include dynamics, risk and uncertainty, finance, environmental and development issues.

Yair was a prominent member of both the second and third generations of agricultural economists. He was a major quantifier of economic relationships in his work on the Moshavim where he improved methodologies to estimate production functions – for instance, the mathematical relationships between input and output that allow us to predict the increase in output of, say apples, from a 1% increase in fertilizers or some other input.

Many earlier studies assumed that production functions of various crops were identical; Mundlak’s data revealed variability across location and over time, and he developed a method called “fixed effect estimation procedure” to identify how yield varies among different farmers, villages and over different seasons.

One particular achievement of Mundlak was the introduction of a methodology to estimate differences in ability among farmers or regions. Theodore Schultz introduced the notion of human capital and argued that differences in managerial capacity affect productivity – Mundlak’s work allows us to estimate the impact of management in an agricultural setting.

Mundlak was an important expander of the agricultural economic research agenda. Later in his career, when he joined the University of Chicago after retiring from the Hebrew University, he developed a method to understand technological change in developing countries like Argentina, Chile and Indonesia.

His work showed how technologies evolve over time in various locations, and he was among the first to measure efficiency of input use among farmers and within regions as well as to estimate the evolution of agricultural supply and input demand in developing countries.

Domingo Cavalo a former Argentine minister of economy and a distinguished economist, suggested that Yair’s work demonstrated how higher earnings by Argentinian farmers led to increased supply, which in turn became influential in developing less restrictive taxation and pricing policies in Argentina around the beginning of the millennium. These changes contributed to the substantial growth in productivity and supply of agriculture in that country.

As a researcher and scholar, Yair had an incredible eye for important issues and always sought simple solutions to difficult problems. He preferred to be original and blaze his own path rather than take the safer approach by building on established routes.

Yair’s personality and humanity were essential to his success as a leader. He was an excellent listener and very empathetic person, encouraging his students and collaborators to present new ideas and be critical of his own ideas.

Yet he maintained high standards and provided tough, constructive criticisms in evaluating the work of students and collaborators. He demanded much from himself and from those around him, yet he recognized and rewarded effort. He helped his students in furthering their career and gaining the recognition they deserve.[5]

Yair’s leadership qualities were manifested as he established a new world-class department by commitment to excellence, building a diverse team, and empowering those around him. His leadership and research were a result of his unique talent and his commitment to Melville’s advice that “[i]t is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”

We are fortunate to have known Yair and to be able to build on his legacy. He will be missed by all of us.

[1] These students include his friend, the late  Pinhas Zusman, Eithan  Hochman, Uri Regev, and later Yacoc Tsur, Haim Shalit, Amos Golan, Isreal Finkelstine and Ziv Bar Shira who all went to Berkeley, as well as Yoav Kislev, Assaf Razin, and later Ayal Kimhi who went to Chicago.

[2] This was evident by the presentations of Nobel laureate James Heckman and Professors Gordon Rausser, Alain deJanvry and Yacov Tsur who reviewed his achievements in the workshop.

[3] Including Theodor Schultz, Willard Cochrane, John Kenneth Galbraith , John Black, Fredrich Waugh, Mordechai Ezekiel

[4] Including Zvi Griliches, Vernon Ruttan, Earl Heady, Marc Nerlove, Yujiro Hayami

[5] A few years ago, he made a significant effort to initiate a drive to make Yacov a Fellow of the AAEA.

Uri Regev: an unsung hero of resource economics

Uri Regev, a teacher and friend of mine, passed away on April 22 in Israel at the age of 80. Uri grew up in Kibbutz Yagur in Israel, studied economics at Hebrew University and came to Berkeley, where he got his Ph.D. in agricultural economics in 1968. He spent most of his career at Ben Gurion University of the Desert in Israel, and was a frequent visitor to Berkeley, where he produced some of his best work in the 1970s.
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Uri’s research was multi-disciplinary when being a multi-disciplinarian was not cool. His work integrated biology and economics- studying “bio-economics” — especially the economics of pest control — and his work laid the foundation to a large body of research.

Uri was among the first to study the economics of resistance to pesticides. His co-authored paper with Darrell Hueth[1]suggested that pests have a certain amount of vulnerability to pesticides, and it wears off the more pesticides are applied, and that resistance to the treatment is increasing. Therefore, when deciding to apply pesticides, people should take into account the future cost of the resistance built up, and reduce the use of pesticides accordingly. This analysis resulted in formulas that actually established rules on how resistance considerations affect how much and when to apply chemicals and what the social cost is of over-application in terms of excess future pest damage. Regev and collaborators went on to apply this model[2], and today the formulation they introduced has been expanded and is widely used today.

Another paper[3] was the first to introduce considerations of predator-prey relationships among species to the economics of pest control. It considers situations when a plant is attacked by two pests when one of them is a predator of the other. The predator reduces the damage of the prey, and if you ignore this and eliminate the predator, the damage may become much bigger if the prey is the bigger pest. Therefore, the control of the predator needs to consider cost of the resulting damage by the prey.

Uri had an enduring, productive and inspiring collaboration with a leading entomologist, Andy Gutierrez. Andy applied their models to develop real world strategies of pest control that recognized such complex relationships and have saved many millions of dollars over the years.

Another innovation of Regev and Gutierrez has been modeling the outcomes of multitrophic food chains (e.g. algae — krill — fish –humans)[4]. As human harvesting capacities grow, market-driven harvesting activities may steer the system away from sustainable outcomes towards destruction. The analysis identifies different scenarios where ignoring the rules governing interaction among species will result in undesired outcomes. Improved human harvesting capacity requires policy interventions that will restrain resource exploitation and sustain the ecosystem.

Uri’s work did not get much attention in the 1970s when his work initially appeared, even at his own university at the time in Tel Aviv. But his research has gained much recognition over time — Uri was very satisfied when, about 20 years ago, his work was featured prominently at a conference on the economics of resistance with applications to both pest control and medicine, sponsored by Resources for the Future.

I owe Regev a debt of gratitude. He was chair of the economics department at Tel Aviv University, where I did my undergraduate studies. Every year, he invited the top performers in the second year of the program for a conversation. I will always remember my interview with him: he asked me about my plans and earnings (I was working fulltime while going to school, which was not unusual in those days). I told him that I was earning well as a programmer and I would like to consider pursuing my education beyond a bachelor’s degree. He encouraged me to consider pursuing a Ph.D. in economics and recommended that I take a course in econometrics. He told me that the course was tough, but valuable, and that taking it would help me decide if I should pursue a career in economics.

One month later, I was invited to a ceremony where I received an envelope from the department with a large certificate. Unlike others who received similar envelopes, however, my envelope did not contain a check, which made me appreciate Uri’s sense for social justice and eye for talent. Uri later recommended me to Eithan Hochman as a possible research assistant, which eventually led me to Berkeley.

Uri was a real gentlemanDSCN0043. He was a very kind and supportive colleague and teacher, with infectious intellectual curiosity and a zest for life and adventure. He appreciated the good things in life, was very musical, and actually continued to play the flute till the very end. He loved his wife Nurit deeply and his three daughters and grandchildren. One of his daughters, Tali Regev, has a Ph.D. in economics from MIT; another daughter, Shiri Regev, is a law professor specializing in civil rights; and a third, Gili, is an MD researching control of diseases (interestingly, her research relies on models based on her father’s work on predator-prey relationships).

Uri’s memory will live in the heart of his family, students and friends, and in the work of the people who follow his research.

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[1] Hueth, D., and Uri Regev. “Optimal agricultural pest management with increasing pest resistance.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 56, no. 3 (1974): 543-552

[2] see for example Regev, Uri, Haim Shalit, and A. P. Gutierrez. “On the optimal allocation of pesticides with increasing resistance: the case of alfalfa weevil.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 10, no. 1 (1983): 86-100

[3] Feder, Gershon, and U. Regev. “Biological interactions and environmental effects in the economics of pest control.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 2, no. 2 (1975): 75-91

[4] Regev, U., Andrew P. Gutierrez, Sebastian J. Schreiber, and David Zilberman. “Biological and economic foundations of renewable resource exploitation.” Ecological Economics 26, no. 3 (1998): 227-242

Bob Evenson: An economist with heart

Recently I learned one of my dear colleagues, Bob Evenson from Yale University, passed away. Bob grew up on a farm in the Minnesota and got his PhD at the University of Chicago. He became a leading development economist, and taught for more than 30 years mostly at Yale.

My early impressions, as a student in Israel and in Berkeley, was that Chicago economics and development were an oxymoron. Chicago economists were supposed to be free-market, cold-hearted creatures that only cared about efficiency. Bob was actually the opposite of this stereotype: he really cared about people, and no matter who you were, he would listen to you. He cared about solving real problems and was particularly proud of his contribution to the development of agricultural research in Brazil and the emergence of EMBRAPA as a leading research institution of the world.

After knowing Bob, I realized that the Chicago economists were not that bad. Actually, the greatest development economist ever is probably Nobel laureate Theodore Schultz (he introduced the idea of human capital), who served as Chairman of Chicago Economics; and the great Vernon Ruttan (who popularized the theory of induced innovation) was a Chicago graduate, among many others. I have learned that many of the most creative contributions in development, both economic and policy, came from the Chicago School, which proves that you need multiple perspectives to address major problems.

Bob produced an incredibly influential paper (with Yoav Kislev) that developed a practical economic framework to quantitatively understand investments in research. Research is basically a ‘search’ for outcomes that perform better. The output of research can be measured by improvement in terms of performance but it is also subject to variability. Evenson’s work with Kislev developed a way to compute the distribution of research efforts, and to investigate how extra investment in research can improve outcomes and reduce uncertainty about them.

evensonThis approach justifies allocation of resources towards research. Firms, and even governments, view research like any other economic activity and weigh benefit and cost to determine investments in research. Evenson suggested that if extra social funding of research provides higher returns than other activities, this means that society under invests in research. Bob was one of the major contributors in documenting the high rate of return for different lines of agricultural research, showing that public research in agricultural, especially in developing countries is extremely valuable, making a case for increased investment and improved design of public research. His work in the Brazilian government in agencies like Rockefeller and Gates Foundation was crucial in directing research towards food production, which has saved lives.

Bob was an excellent scholar but he was also an intellectual leader. He was an intuitive leader that would recognize new direction for research and worked very hard to make sure that they will be followed. While he was one of the biggest advocates for public investment in agricultural research, he recognized that to be effective, public-private partnerships were important to induce private investment in research.

To induce private investment in agricultural research, it was important to introduce intellectual property on genetic material. He inspired a lot of researchers on how to design and manage intellectual property in agriculture to make sure that it is not abused. He also realized the potential of genetic engineering in agriculture and some of the likely controversy they may cause and the need for global cooperation for research on this topic.

Together with Vittorio Santaniello he organized a conference in Rome in 1998 on the economics of biotechnology and biodiversity, which lead to the establishment of the International Consortium of Agricultural Biotechnology Research that has been meeting mostly in Ravello, Italy. This has become an international forum to discuss economics and policy challenges as global society increasingly relies on biological based technology.

I was privileged to collaborate with Bob in this consortium and was amazed at his capacity to vision new areas of research, to inspire and finance participation from developing countries, and produce books and other publications that provide a base for sound policy discussion. While he maintained academic excellence, the Ravello conference was a meeting of friends and Bob and his wife Judy made everyone feel welcome. It was an incredible achievement to establish an island of collaboration and reason in the midst of controversy.
Bob’s departing is a loss to his friends, family and colleagues. He was one of these rare individuals that made a difference in the lives of people around the world and blazed a path that many will follow.