(Artvoice, 12 February 1999)

Bruce Jackson

Wassily Leontief 's Black Box

Wassily Leontief, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1973 for his input-output model of microeconomics, died in New York last Friday at the age of 93.

He left his native Russia in 1925 when he was nineteen, "because," he told me, "they kept putting me in jail." I asked why they kept doing that. "Because I kept putting up anti-government posters in military barracks." He said it was clear to everybody that nothing was going to change: he was going to continue putting up anti-government posters and the government was going to continue jailing him for it, so he went to Germany, then to China, and finally to the United States.

Wassily was a member of the Harvard faculty from 1931 to 1975, when he left with some of his best students for NYU, in large part because Harvard refused to award tenure to any scholar whose field was Marxist economics. Diane and I talked with him in Paris that summer, not long after his move had been announced. "I shook 'em up, Bruce, I shook 'em up good," he said with obvious delight. Harvard never expected that one of their most famous Nobel Prize winners would make so total and public a move a year before his 65th birthday. "But I had to do it," he said. "That Harvard Economics department! Twenty-four full professors marching in lockstep--in the wrong direction!"

I saw him most frequently in the mid-1960s when he was a senior fellow and then chairman of Harvard's Society of Fellows. Our group of 24 Junior Fellows, eight Senior Fellows and five or six guests, had dinner around a u-shaped table in room A-24 of Adams House every Monday night. The visitors would talk about their adventures, we'd talk about our work, the Senior Fellows would join the conversations and keep the whole enterprise going.

I remember Wassily's endless curiosity about the specifics of things. Every time I came back from a field trip to Texas prisons he'd ask questions about detailed aspects of what I'd seen. At first I thought he was being polite, showing a young man that the older scholars took his work seriously, but that wasn't it at all: he adored good stories and facts and details that gave them validity. The New York Times obituary last Sunday quoted him as saying, "Facts. You have to have facts. Theories aren't good unless you have facts to back them."

I sat with Wassily whenever I could because I loved his responses to what people said. His questions about specific things went to what made the stories matter. And I sat with him because I loved to listen to him tell stories. This is the one I remember best:

During World War II he was involved at a high level in military intelligence, in what was then called OSS After the war, he went back to his study of economic systems. Sometime in the 1950s he tried to get some statistical information and was told that he couldn't get that information because it was classified, that is, it was available only to people with security clearance. Wassily argued that he had the highest security clearance; after all, hadn't he been a highly-placed person in intelligence during the War? Yes, he was told, he had been highly-placed and he had had high clearance, but his clearance had been canceled. He asked why. He was told that the reason for the clearance was itself classified, and since he had no security clearance they couldn't tell him what the reason was.

This struck him as absurd and insulting, so he went to McGeorge Bundy, who was then dean of Harvard College. He asked Bundy to help him get the best radical lawyer around to fight for restoration of his clearance. Bundy said, "Why bother? You can get whatever information you need elsewhere. If you get a lawyer to do this it will cost you a lot of money."

"It's the principle of the thing," Wassily said.

Bundy said, "Then for a case like this you don't want a radical lawyer. They won't pay any attention to a radical lawyer. What you want is a conservative lawyer." Bundy helped him connect with one of Boston's oldest and most respected law firms, Hale and Dorr (the firm of James St. Clair, Richard Nixon's attorney in the final days, the firm hired by the U.S. Army in its war against Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the firm Robert Duvall's character works for in A Civil Action).

A long and wearying process began. Wassily's Hale and Dorr attorney filed papers, after a long delay the government responded, the Hale and Dorr attorney filed more papers, the government responded. At several points the attorney, Bundy, and some of Wassily's other friends suggested he drop the whole thing. He refused to quit, claiming that the principle was more important to him than the money he was spending on the case.

Then he was informed that there was to be a hearing. It would be at an office in New York's financial district on a Sunday morning. Nowadays, people live in parts of the financial district, but in those years, the area was just offices and shops. On the weekends it was devoid of human beings, much like one of those science fiction movies where the hero comes to the city and sees nothing except rats and wind-driven bits of paper. Indeed, some of those movies were filmed in exactly those streets on weekends and they needed no set-designer trickery to look grimly barren.

Wassily and his attorney went to the appointed address. The building seemed deserted but the front door was unlocked. They took the elevator to the appointed floor and walked the empty corridor to the appointed room. It was, he said, "like a scene from Kafka." The room was long and narrow. At the front was a raised dais at which sat three men. Behind and above them sat a fourth man. The lighting was harsh and from above so everyone's face was in shadow, especially the fourth man, whose face was in almost total darkness.

Wassily and his attorney sat at a wooden table near the front of the room. One of the three men stood, pointed a finger at him, and said, "Is it not true, Professor Leontief, that in 1942 you published in a Russian economics journal an article entitled..." He gave the article's full title and, without waiting for an answer, he continued, "And is it not true that also in 1942 you published in another journal an article entitled...." The man read a long list of articles, all published in prominent Soviet economics journals over a period of several years.

When he was done, Wassily stood up, said "No," and then sat down.

(He looked at us and grinned. He paused, drank some wine, grinned again. This was obviously a part of the story he especially liked.) The man said to him, "What do you mean, 'no?'"

Wassily stood up again and said, "No, I didn't publish any such articles."

Wassily made a sound like a motorboat, imitating the man saying "But...but...but..."

Wassily raised a hand, like a policeman stopping a line of traffic. He said to the man, "What is the initial of that Leontief you have?"

The man looked at his papers and said, "L."

Wassily said, "And what is my initial?"

The man looked at some papers and said, "W."

Wassily said, "So?" and sat down."

Leontief described a scene of consternation and chattering. The shadowed heads came together and talked. They turned to the faceless man behind and above them. After a pause that man stood and pointed a finger at Leontief and said, "And is it not true, Professor Leontief, that your wife is a member of Consumer's Union?"

Leontief paused again in the telling, smiled again, sipped the wine again, and then said, "I stood up and I said, 'Yes. So what?'"

That ended the hearing. A few months later, he said, he received a letter informing him that his clearance had been restored, he could have access to whatever data he wished. He instructed the lawyer to write back to them and say he was no longer interested in clearance, what he wanted was an apology.

"Did you get it?" I asked.

"Of course not. I never heard from them again."

The theory that got Wassily his Nobel Prize is often called "the Black Box theory of microeconomics." You know what goes in, you see what comes out, you don't necessarily have any idea what happens on the inside. Insides of complex economic entities are sometimes perfectly opaque, but that doesn't have to cripple you.

The committee Wassily confronted that Sunday morning in Wall Street was the ultimate black box, the anonymous governmental machine. He had learned its output years earlier: his clearance had been withdrawn. He looked and looked and looked and finally he learned the input: incompetent bureaucrats who didn't read past the last name when they were looking for a communist sympathizer. When he dissolved that disqualification, another appeared, one that was not only equally irrelevant but even more absurd. Consumer's Union is not a political organization; it is a product-testing organization that reports to its members on the relative quality of automobiles, television sets, toothpaste, fabrics, breakfast cereals.

Wassily's "So what?" went into the black box and what came out was not any explication of the process but only a new result, one that he responded to as absurdly as it had responded to him. The box responded in the only way it could, with perfect silence.

Wassily never penetrated the black box of bureaucracy, the black box inside of which all governments hide what substitutes for a heart, and that, I think, is what his story is about, and why he liked it so well.

And here's why I like it so much. The fact that he knew it was a black box wasn't going to get in the way of Wassily's poking at it with his stick. The machine could crank out its clearances. He wanted an apology. Machines don't apologize; they don't understand the need for apologies. Wassily knew that, he was no dope, no naif. He was perfectly aware when he made that final request of his Hale and Dorr attorney that there would never be a reply. But the mere fact that the machine wasn't human wasn't going to stop him from being human. The fact that it couldn't understand what was wrong and that the people who buried their hearts within it couldn't see what they had lost didn't mean he would lose either his heart or his humor. That was the lesson of Wassily's story: we're better than black boxes, every time.

copyright 1999 Bruce Jackson
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email: bjackson@acsu.buffalo.edu