Zvi Griliches: The prophet of R&D

A distinguished Harvard Economics professor with a passion for Israel.

Zvi Griliches: On April 17, the Technion’s Samuel Neaman Insitute announced the Griliches Research Data Center in his memory (photo credit: DIANE ASSÉO GRILICHES)
Zvi Griliches: On April 17, the Technion’s Samuel Neaman Insitute announced the Griliches Research Data Center in his memory
ON THURSDAY April 12, Holocaust Remembrance Day was observed. To mark this day, albeit belatedly, here is the improbable story of a small boy with impaired vision who survived the Holocaust (barely), in Dachau, made it to Palestine (via Cyprus) as an orphan, closed the gap of eight years of missed schooling in six months, became a famous Harvard economics professor, and did research that changed forever how Israel and the world invested in innovation and in Research and Development.
His name is Zvi Griliches, well known to economists but less so to the general public.
He passed away on November 4, 1999.
Here is his story, in his own words, from an autobiographical sketch he wrote in January 1976: “I was born in Kaunas [Kovna], Lithuania, on September 12, 1930. My father, Efim Griliches, was from Dvinak, now in Latvia. His family had a tannery there. He had finished a Russian Gymnasium and studied chemical engineering in Germany.
“After an early youth in Kaunas, my mother went to boarding schools in Memel, Hanover and Lausanne, where she learned German and French. After a brief stay in Dvinsk the couple returned to Kaunas, where my father worked in the family’s cigarette factory.
“I and my sister Ellen, three years younger than me, grew up in comfortable circumstances.
Russian was spoken at home, Lithuanian I learned from my nanny and on the street. I was sent to a Hebrew school where the language of instruction was modern Hebrew. My family was not Orthodox, but observed the major Jewish holidays and considered itself Zionist.
“My earliest memories are dominated by two factors. I was cross-eyed and had to wear glasses early, leading to a lot of teasing from other children. I read early and widely, having acquired a library card at the age of five or earlier. Life was relatively pleasant for a child of well-to-do parents in Lithuania in the 1930s and I have rather nostalgic memories of that time.
“But the world was marching on. In 1940 Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union.
The factory was nationalized, though my father continued working there. I was sent to a Russian school (4th grade). My own life didn’t change much but the level of tension and worry about me increased substantially.
“In late June 1941 the Germans marched in. In August we were moved into the Kaunas Ghetto where we remained until 1944. The first years in the Ghetto were not too difficult for me. I was shielded from much of the worry and was left alone to do a lot of reading. Father worked in the administration of the Ghetto while mother became the effective breadwinner, going to work on the ‘outside’ in a delousing establishment and wheeling and dealing, selling clothes and jewelry for the people in the Ghetto and bringing in food from the outside. She also managed to get my sister out and placed her in a Catholic school.
“In the last year of the Ghetto my mother worked in a rubber factory on the outside and I joined her there, sorting reclaimed pieces of rubber. Life in the Ghetto was punctuated by repeated “actions” in which thousands of people were taken out to unknown but suspected fatal destinations. I witnessed some of them and hid out through others. As the war turned and the Germans started retreating, we dug a big hiding place under the cellar of our house.
“In June 1944, as the evacuation of the Ghetto began, we descended into this hiding place (the malina) and spent almost a week there before being blasted out of it by the Germans, having been turned in by somebody whom we had refused to include in the hiding place….because there were already six families crowded into one small room. After spending the night outside at a collection point in the middle of the burning Ghetto, we were marched the next day to the railroad station, loaded on freight cars and shipped to Stuthof, near Danzig.
Stuthof was a large concentration camp.
Men were separated from women. I saw my mother for the last time. She was to die of typhus, in the spring of 1945.
“My father and I, after a stay of several weeks in Stuthof, were shipped off to Camp No. 10 in Dachau, in Utting, on Ammersee, in Bavaria. Because I was tall for my age (14 at that time), I went with the adults rather than being shipped to Auswicz with the other children from Kaunas.
“Camp No. 10 was a work camp rather than an extermination camp. We were building a factory of pre-fabricated concrete plates for the construction of factories elsewhere. The camp consisted of about 800 Jewish men from Shauli and Kaunas in Lithuania and 300 from Lodz in Poland.
Food was scarce and it was winter. I worked in excavation and carrying cement bags. In early January 1945 my father died of malnutrition (hunger and diarrhea). As the first orphan in the camp, my situation improved somewhat. I became a sort of mascot.
“With the war drawing to a close we were evacuated (on foot) to Dachau and from there marched toward the Alps. On May 2, 1945, I was liberated by Patton’s Third Army, in the village of Waakirchen, outside of Bad Tolz. I was 14 and a half and weighed about 70 pounds. After some adventures, I found an uncle of mine in Munich and attached myself to him.
“AFTER A year in Munich I became tired of waiting for him to go to Palestine and joined a youth group in a Displaced Persons camp in Feldafing, Bavaria. After about six months there we moved on the ‘underground railroad’ towards Palestine – first to France, and then from the port of Sete, in a small boat, towards Palestine. In February, our boat was intercepted and boarded by the British Navy and towed to Haifa. From Haifa we were transferred to a camp in Larnaca, Cyprus, where I spent about 7 months doing largely nothing except relearning Hebrew and starting on English.
“Since the only books available were in English, I started reading them and by the end of my stay there I was reading them fluently.
“I arrived in Palestine in September 1947, at the age of 17. Finding that none of my more or less distant relatives were ready to take me in, I went with my youth group to Kibbutz Eilon in the western Galilee, in the framework of Youth Aliya. I worked half a day, mainly in the orchards of the kibbutz, and studied for half a day, mostly Hebrew and the geography and history of Palestine.
“After the UN resolution in November 1947, the security situation deteriorated rapidly. By January 1948 the roads to Eilon were cut off and supplies came in either by air or by sea to Nahariya and by foot from there. The blockade of the kibbutz ended with the conquest of Acco in May 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel.
During these months I spent many hours and nights on guard duty.
“In the fall of 1948, our year of Youth Aliya ended and the group I was with largely fell apart. Some, I among them, joined the Army. I fought hard to get in, in spite of my poor eyesight. I was defined as 4-F and sent on leave without pay [types like me weren’t needed at the time]. I found a room, and a job repairing streets, in Tel Aviv… just when that got going, I was called up again to the Army and had to give up the room and the job. Just as I got ready for basic training, I was discharged again from the Army for health reasons. Having nowhere clear to go, I joined another youth group at a kibbutz, where there were a few friends from my earlier group and together we went through a series of places (Sarid and Dalia) and then established a new settlement, Kibbutz Nachshonim, on the western border of Israel, near Petah Tikva.
“Throughout this period, I was trying to find a way to resume my education. I initiated legal proceedings to receive two small plots of land that my parents had purchased years ago while in Lithuania. I also started taking correspondence courses from the British Institute, mainly in English and mathematics.
“IN EARLY 1950, a cousin of mine (now deceased) offered me to stay with her and her husband while preparing for the matriculation exam as an external student. I left the kibbutz at that point, moved to Tel Aviv and began studying full-time for this exam (a national high school completion exam).
Since I had had almost no formal schooling since the age of 10, I had much to make up, especially in mathematics and in Bible, a major subject of that exam. With some tutoring, I managed to pass that exam in June 1950. Not with flying colors, but considering that I tried to make up for eight missed grades in less than six months, it was still quite an achievement.
“Having passed the exam and gotten my inheritance, I enrolled in the Hebrew University and moved to Jerusalem in the fall of 1950. I had wanted to get into the school of agriculture, but was too late for that, so I chose Social Science and concentrated on History.
“Among the teachers I had there, I was very much influenced by Professor Yaakov Talmon, a student of Karl Popper, who taught us to mistrust political movements that had “the” solution.
“At the time I started thinking about going to the US. My uncle and sister, who had come out of Lithuania and joined my uncle in Munich instead of joining me in Israel, went to the US in 1948. Also the universities in the US seemed to offer a larger variety and better opportunities for pursuing my educational goals. I applied to the University of California, at Berkeley, in agricultural economics, and was accepted. I had chosen Agricultural Economics because to leave Israel at that time one had to study something “essential.”
Agricultural economics appeared to me the most attractive social-science type of area of study among the various other “essential” possibilities, such as engineering or accounting, open to me at the time.
“I arrived at Berkeley, and the US, in September 1951. I did a BSc in Agricultural Economics in two years, having gotten a year’s advanced placement for the Israel Matriculation Certificate and a year’s credit for the time at Hebrew University, and a Master’s degree in an additional year.
I got married in 1953 to Diane Asséo from Los Angeles. In 1954 we moved to Chicago and I continued my graduate studies in Economics at the University of Chicago….
I received the PhD degree in 1957.
We had two children: Eve and Marc.”
“I started my research career working on the economics of technological change: the diffusion of hybrid corn seed, the increased use of fertilizer in US agriculture, and the methodological and empirical problems of measuring technical change in agriculture, manufacturing and the economy at large.”
“The data showed how fast hybrid corn was spreading in Wisconsin, in Indiana, in Alabama. I tried to show that in fact hybrid corn was spreading in the areas where the hybrids had a higher superiority over the old variety of corn.
“I also looked at how much firms spend on Research and Development, trying to see how that advanced their productivity.
We asked how profitable is that sort of investment to the investors and to society as a whole?” “Economics is a little bit like archaeology, in the sense that we can’t really do major experiments. We cannot take people and take their money away or go into the market and change prices and see how things happen. That’s why you have model building. You use mathematical models to describe what you think is happening and then you go through the data and you try to fit those models to the data to see whether it is consistent.
“I moved from Chicago to Harvard in 1969.”
THIS CONCLUDES Zvi’s story. He was a distinguished Harvard Economics professor for 30 years, did pioneering research and trained generations of great scholars, including many Israeli economists.
There is one important postscript to add.
In 1991, Griliches was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Hebrew University.
He valued that award very very deeply.
Zvi Griliches died on November 4, 1999. Many people believe that had he lived a few more years, he would have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics.
One of his earliest papers, published in 1958, showed with impeccable care that “at least 700 percent per year was being earned, as of 1955, on the average dollar invested in hybrid-corn research.”
That astonishing finding helped Israel and the world understand that R&D was the road to growth and prosperity.
On April 17, at the Samuel Neaman Institute at the Technion, a memorial event was held to honor Griliches and to announce the Griliches Research Data Center.
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com