*A Life of Experimental Economics, volume I*, by Vernon Smith

I learned a great deal from this stimulating and highly unorthodox biography.  Here are a few points from the book:

1. It offers a brief but excellent early economic history of Wichita, where Vernon grew up.

2. Vernon, at the time, was very critical of the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, which he considered to be a disproportionate use of force.

3. In the 1940s he became active in CORE and its fight against racial discrimination.

4. In 1948 Vernon was an antiwar pacifist and a supporter of Norman Thomas.

5. At MIT, Paul Samuelson was a show-off lecturer, according to Vernon.

6. The book has plenty of sentences like: “Grandpa Smith and Uncle Norman were always a delight to have around — lots of jokes, wisecracks, and laughs.”

7. pp.163-164: “The details, as we came to know them, were not the least bit complicated…It was at first thought that she had considered using the knife on herself, but apparently the knife was there because she considered cutting a length from a nearby piece of rope.  Instead, she used a chain.  It was so like my mother — a clean job with no mess.  Everyone who knew her knew that she would never have used the butcher knife.  Even the hanging could never have occurred in the house.  No fuss, no mess; a clean job, with no room for error.”

8. On attention-switching: “I have always had what my mind has gradually come to recognize — by comparative observation of others — as a brain task-switching problem.  When I am thinking, writing, or composing, I pass into another world of experience, a world that is isolated from my surroundings…I experience many chaotic but loosely connected thought.  One, then another, rises and there emerges a hint of how they are to come together.”  He notes that interruptions are very costly to him, and he much prefers one-to-one conversations rather than group dialogues.  Furthermore, he argues that his capacity to “hyper-focus” is more valuable than his measured IQ of 130.

9. There are considerable and interesting discussions of autism, Asperger’s and ADHD.

10. The book offers an excellent account of why Purdue was an important economics department in the 1950s and 1960s.

11. In 1957, Vernon considered going to work for a private railroad and leaving Purdue for St. Louis.  He didn’t.

You can buy the book here, vol.II is good too.

Comments

Sounds kind of droll and macabre, maybe dryly ironic, or maybe like a sort of idiot savant or Forrest Gump character describing their life, not clear.

Using the bomb in Japan was a great gift to the Japanese people. The Japanese were intending to continue fighting and even their own estimates were 20 million Japanese civilians killed trying to keep the U.S. from winning. Additionally the Russians were planning on invading Japan from the Western side which would have resulted in even more deaths and a divided Japan. The bomb ended the war with the least amount of death and destruction.

My father was headed for Japan when they dropped the bombs and he said that they heard about Okinawa and were very glad that the bomb was dropped. They feared that the Japanese soldiers would fight to the death.

What is a "show-off lecturer"?

Certainly it's not a common term, but it helps to describe some memories from college.

A professor which boasted about his scientific publications, published a couple books, being busy with projects outside the university, etc. He imparted 4 or 5 lectures out the 18 for the semester. The rest were given by a starving teaching assistant. All questions also answered by the assistant.

Other kind of show-off professors is one that sells you the idea that there's a model for everything. These storytellers are highly valued by students because there's no loose end in the stories. Science has a answer to all things. I'd prefer the ones that tell you all the caveats. I want knowledge, not certitude. For certitude I can go to church or the bar.

130?

This jumped out at me as well. I first came across V. Smith through a Reason.com video probably a decade ago and my first impression was that, although his accomplishments seem to speak for themselves, he is definitely not as smart as your typical rockstar academicl (140 IQ and up). It's strange how apparent that is with some people. My IQ was measured as 130 when I was in the fifth grade and I was barely smart enough for grad school in mathematics at a crappy state school.

I know a few high IQ academics and I know a few multi-millionaires. None of the high IQ types are rich or even very successful. All of the millionaires are just average people with a desire to work hard and get ahead. IQ as a measure of "something" is over rated.

I agree with that, IQ is overrated by many. Diligence, rationality, willingness to take reasonable but not extreme risks are more important.

It's a shame nobody has done any studies trying to establish how well these various factors correlate with success...

If he considered the atomic bombs disproportionate, he was a fool. The Japanese casualties from an invasion or a prolonged blockade were estimated to utterly dwarf the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs saved lives on both sides.

One assumes he was equally vocal in opposing firebombings, which in the case of Toyko killed more people than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Which also lends a bit of support to the idea that invading Japan would have led to millions of deaths.

(One can argue a bit about Nagasaki being disproportionate, but there is no question that the simple equation of one plane, one bomb, one city was hammered home by doing it twice in a row.)

Truman and the DOD wanted to drop the bomb to test it out, and see how it would work in a real-life killing experiment. They really didn't need to drop it to win the war. They could have invited the Japanese to a live demonstration--could have offered them "conditional" surrender etc., but they wanted to drop it, and so concocted the story that it needed to be dropped to save lives. Twenty years later that argument morphed into, "We needed to destroy the village to save it."

could have offered them "conditional" surrender etc.

They did. They got to keep the Emperor.

"One assumes he was equally vocal in opposing firebombings"

One would hope so. The mass bombings of cities were a result of the state of the technology. The allied air forces had huge numbers of bombers and air superiority but their attempts at precision bombing were largely ineffective (navigation and targeting weren't good enough). Well, what you do with a huge but imprecise bomber fleet? Answer: population centers.

Collective punishment, it's the American way. Wouldn't want those teen-age girls walking to school on the morning of August 6, 1945 to give birth to the next generation of kamikaze pilots.

If he considered the atomic bombs disproportionate, he was a fool. The Japanese casualties from an invasion or a prolonged blockade were estimated to utterly dwarf the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs saved lives on both sides.

They may have saved lives compared to an invasion or blockade, but those weren't the only options. Demanding nothing short of 'unconditional surrender' wasn't necessary. With Germany defeated, their own forces in retreat, and the war clearly lost, the Japanese would surely have agreed to peace on extremely favorable terms.

This.
It baffles me how stupid smart people can be

First, at Postdam, the allied didn't demand "unconditional surrender" of Japan, but "unconditional surrender of the Japanese Army", which is very different and certainly reasonable.

Second, you say "the Japanese would surely have agreed to peace on extremely favorable terms". Then why didn't the Japanese agree to
peace before Hiroshima? -- they had three months to think it through since the defeat of Germany. Why didn't they even surrender after Hiroshima and before Nagasaki?

Third: have you heard of what happened at the battle of Okinawa?

Fourth: Obtaining a very favorable piece from Germany was what they allied did at the end of WWI. This didn't prevent WWII to begin just 20 years later. Obtaining an unconditional surrender of Germany and of the Japanese army at the end of WWII has given us 73 years of peace with those two countries, and counting.

SO, long live Hiroshima AND Nagasaki.

"unconditional surrender of the Japanese Army", which is very different and certainly reasonable.

What's the distinction there?

Then why didn't the Japanese agree to
peace before Hiroshima?

What terms were on offer?

This didn't prevent WWII to begin just 20 years later.

That's a very different, speculative argument (that unconditional surrender was necessary for to prevent WW III). But note that the harshness of the terms imposed on Germany after WW I is often described as one of the causes of the rise of Hitler and WW II.

History is always a case of tiny sample sizes and different historical conditions. The idea that 'unconditional surrender is necessary to prevent future wars' is certainly nothing close to an established truth. We don't know what would have happened if Japan had never been occupied, but we do know for sure that if the bombs had not been used, 200,000 civilians would have been alive (some of who would still be walking amongst us).

I always figured they could have dropped the bomb 50 miles of the coast near Tokyo and just threaten the use of force in order to get them to surrender...

That option (a demonstration) was considered and rejected. They had very few bombs available (i.e. none to "waste" on a demonstration), and it was not obvious that a demonstration would have been effective. Given that there was no surrender after the first actual bomb, the idea that just a demonstration and threat would work seems incorrect.

In addition, the even more destructive conventional incendiary attacks on Tokyo in March had not motivated a surrender.

One has to bear in mind that the Japanese had fought a whole series of hopeless stands, essentially to the last man, and were actively making preparation to do that on the home islands. A very strong "no surrender under any conditions" ethos had been repeatedly demonstrated.

All railroads in America are private, with the exception of Amtrak - which does not carry freight.

Vernon is the nicest, smartest man I've ever met.

Swingin’ From the Penis trees!

'his capacity to “hyper-focus” is more valuable than his measured IQ of 130'

Do many distinguished figures tell the public their IQ? I mean actual IQ, measured by some well recognised standard test? I don't think I've often seen it.

I think Vernon Smith refers to his IQ not to tell you how smart he is - if you are reading the book you probably already know that he is smart - but instead to tell you that his IQ was not predominantly responsible for the major insights in his life.

Livin’ in the Penis Jungle! Swingin’ from the Penis vines.

Tyler Cowen,
Do you know Smith's new book is different from the memoirs he published in 2008 which was titled Discovery: A Memoir. That book -- which I enjoyed -- had recollections of his life as a boy in Wichita, working in the B-29 plant as a teenager, his academic career, etc. Does this new one add details to the 2008 book? Thanks. - TC

I believe volume 1 is a heavily revised version of the previous book and volume 2 is new.

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