Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sam Bowles Spoke in our Operations Research Series

Professor Sam Bowles spoke to a standing room only crowd in our 2009 Fall UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series yesterday at the Isenberg School of Management. The title of his presentation was: The Nature of Wealth and the Dynamics of Inequality from Pre-history to the Knowledge-based Economy. His lecture, which was brilliant, was based on the research behind his co-authored paper in Science, just hot-off-the press, entitled, Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies. The Science article had a commentary by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Foundations of Societal Inequality. Acemoglu of MIT had opened up our Fall 2008 Speaker Series last year.

Professor Sam Bowles received his PhD in economics from Harvard and his teacher was the Nobel laureate Simon Kusnetz, of whom he spoke very fondly of. Bowles was moved to work on inequality while a child living in India while his father was the US ambassador to India (he subsequently returned to this position years afterward). Sam Bowles' great-grandfather (of the same name) was the abolitionist editor of the Springfield Republican, and a friend of the Amherst poet, Emily Dickinson. In fact, last week the Bowles family had been honored at a banquet put on by the Republican (I communicated with the present publisher, Larry McDermott, this morning).

Professor Bowles began his lecture by saying that he was very pleased to be speaking in an operations research seminar series because he enjoyed learning about and applying linear programming, going back to the 1960s. Indeed, in the lunch that followed his presentation we were treated even to his recollections about his travel to Cuba in 1969 to advise the Ministry of Sugar on transportation problems, using, yes, linear programming models in which there were capacities on the links. I found an interview with Sam Bowles in the Harvard Crimson that was published in 1969 after his return from Cuba.

In his lecture yesterday, he graphically (with numerous images of animals, humans, and landscapes from around the world) and mathematically (through an elegant dynamic model for which a long-run steady-state could be determined) explained the variation in inequality in different societies through the extent in which the most important forms of wealth are transmitted within families across generations. The types of wealth considered: material, embodied, and relational (which he illustrated with different network topologies).

The captivating lecture ended with a quote from the Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow (who I have had the privilege of meeting while at a workshop at Stanford University) on information, which he then related to a quote from Karl Marx. A discussion followed on whether patents are needed and how intellectual discoveries and innovations should be priced.

Professor Bowles told us at lunch, afterwards, that he gets up at 4AM (which I am sure motivated the students who heard this) because of his passion for the research and problems that he is working on.

After Professor Bowles' lecture, we will all be seeing the world with new eyes. We thank him profusely for speaking to the undergrads, grad students, faculty, and visitors, that represent numerous disciplines (management science and operations research, engineering, computer science, economics, resource economics, organizational studies, marketing, finance, and others), who came to his talk yesterday.