Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A life well-lived

John Harsanyi was one of the founding fathers of Game Theory, a fascinating part of economic theory that examines how agents make strategic choices when the value of their actions depends on the choices of others. In 1994, he won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work, along with John Nash and Reinhard Selten. Although most people would rate Nash's contribution as the greatest (in discovering Nash Equilibria, the foundation of all Game Theory) Harsanyi added a lot to the understanding of games of incomplete information, greatly expanding the range of situations that can be analysed using Game Theory tools.

Long before this, he also came perilously close to be killed in the Holocaust. He was a Hungarian Jew in Budapest in 1944, which was a pretty damn hazardous situation to be in. As he describes it:
In that November the Nazi authorities finally decided to deport my labor unit from Budapest to an Austrian concentration camp, where most of my comrades eventually perished. But I was lucky enough to make my escape from the railway station in Budapest, just before our train left for Austria. Then a Jesuit father I had known gave me refuge in the cellar of their monastery.
Before winning a Nobel Prize, John Harsanyi escaped both from the mutha-f***ing Nazis in World War 2. But it gets better. He stayed around in Budapest, and became a professor in Sociology:
But in June 1948, I had to resign from the Institute because the political situation no longer permitted them to employ an outspoken anti-Marxist as I had been.
He hated communism, and wasn't afraid to say so. In 1948. In Budapest. Think about that. Would you have had the balls to say that stuff?
But [Anne, his eventual wife] was continually harassed by her Communist classmates to break up with me because of my political views, but she did not. This made her realize, before I did, that Hungary was becoming a completely Stalinist country, and that the only sensible course of action for us was to leave Hungary. 
Actually we did so only in April 1950. We had to cross the Hungarian border illegally over a marshy terrain, which was less well guarded than other border areas. But even so, we were very lucky not to be stopped or shot at by the Hungarian border guards.
John Harsanyi also escaped from the mutha-f***ing Communists in 1950. Holy Hell! 

He got to Australia, didn't speak the language and his credentials were worthless.So what did he do? Complain to a diversity consultant? Protest that the government wasn't supporting him enough? Lobby for Hungarian language education and civic notices?
As my English was not very good and as my Hungarian university degrees were not recognized in Australia, during most of our first three years there I had to do factory work. But in the evening I took economics courses at the University of Sydney. 
No, instead of bitching, he worked his ass off in a factory and studied economics at night.

And then won a God Damn Nobel Prize in the subject. 

If Milton Friedman and Chuck Norris had a son together, that son would be John Harsanyi.

John Harsanyi, for being a wicked economist, an opponent of tyranny and a thoroughly hardcore dude, you are hereby post-humously inducted into the Shylock Holmes Order of Guys Who Kick Some Serious Ass.

I was reading about this, and two things occurred to me.

The first is how close the world came to never having heard his insights. It's probable that someone else would have figured out similar ideas eventually, but the economics profession and the world benefited greatly from having John Harsanyi pass through this vale of tears. Any small number of mishaps, and he would have been one more unknown death statistic for the Nazis or Communists.

And that is the second point is this - how many John Harsanyis didn't make it? How many more Nobel prize winning insights were lost to the butchers of Auschwitz, the cowardly scum of Nanking, and the rest of World War 2's parade of horrors? The Holocaust in particular killed millions of Ashkenazi Jews, a group notable for their unusually high intelligence. It is a virtual certainty than many future prodigies were killed over those years, whose insights might have advanced human knowledge and welfare in ways we'll never know. What a horrible, criminal waste of humanity. The deaths of the many ordinary people in World War 2 are no less tragic for their lack of extraordinary potential. But it's hard not to wonder at what might have been. 

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