Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Irma Adelman (1930-2017): A leading economist and outstanding Berkeley faculty member

By David Zilberman

I was very sorry to learn that Irma Adelman passed away February 24, 2017 . A brilliant woman whose life story and achievements were truly awe-inspiring, Irma lived through some of the most important events of the 20 th century and her research tools and ideas have impacted the lives of countless people. We were privileged to know and work with her for most of her very productive career. Irma was recently profiled in the Annual Review of Resource Economics “ Conversation ” series where they feature leading economists such as Arnold Harberger and Douglass North. However in this post, I want to offer a more personal perspective on Irma’s life and work.

Irma was a fighter and survivor her entire life. She was born to a well-to-do family in Romania, but her close family had to escape persecution and leave Romania for Palestine during the turmoil leading to World War II. Her family members who didn’t leave were lost forever. After graduating from high school, Irma fought in the Israeli Independence War of 1948, and after the War left for Berkeley. She completed her undergraduate studies at the business school, then earned a PhD in Economics, and got married. After graduation, she faced gender discrimination on the job market as a young tenure-track academic and despite her brilliant publications, she served as a lecturer and instructor for several years until she received her first assistant professorship at Stanford. From Stanford, she moved to Johns Hopkins, then to University of Maryland, and finally back to Berkeley, returning to her alma mater where she would remain for the rest of her career. I have always appreciated Irma’s courage and resilience. She continued to be productive until her last days (preparing a book on the Korean Economic Miracle in which she played a prominent supporting role) despite dealing with diabetes and grieving the loss of her only son, Alex. She was blessed to have her son-in-law, Robert Ubilius Adelman, who supported her lovingly until her last days.

I hosted Irma for several weeks in her transition back to Berkeley, and in our many conversations I learned to appreciate her keen sense of humor, love of art, and her incredible ability in Checkers, Backgammon, and other table games. She could talk endlessly and eloquently  about economics and politics, her feelings of guilt for leaving Israel, and worried for their long-term survival amidst the havoc of the Middle East. She established a graduate student fund to support Israeli students to study in our department. She genuinely cherished the freedom and opportunities of America, was understandably very suspicious of the Communist Block, (including recently Putin) and the political regression of Russia. But most of all, she had incredible empathy for oppressed people everywhere, and being a development economist, fighting for equality and progress was natural for her. She also spoke frequently about the difficulties and uncertainties that she encountered as a young female economist, and I appreciated the incredible dedication she had during her early years when she wrote highly technical papers while teaching many classes at Stanford and Mills College, raising a child with minimal help. In those early days, she felt especially frustrated because, while many expressed goodwill and conviction to strive for equality for women, barriers were tough to break down. She realized that having affirmative-action legislation that codified women’s rights was essential and must be expanded and maintained. Irma also believed that female perspectives expanded the conceptual scope and social relevance of economics as a discipline, meaning the exclusion of women made economics worse off than it would have been otherwise. Her career is a testament to this belief.

As an economist, Irma was ahead of her time, and I believe that her contributions have not been fully appreciated (she was considered for the Nobel Prize, and was very deserving). First, she was a true multi-disciplinarian. She realized that the standard economic framework was blind to many fundamental behavioral drivers of life—social status, household work, and striving for livelihood. With these limitations in mind, she introduced several frameworks that borrowed quantitative models from other social sciences to develop better understanding of quality of life and how policy can affect it. I recall that she recommended to one of her students, Effi Gutkind, who was looking for a dissertation topic, to go to different parts of Oakland, in laundromats and retail stores and ask different people, “if you were desperate and needed $100, what would you do to get it?” Many people answered that they would borrow, or find a short-term job or work overtime, but many men suggested they would steal and women that they would enter prostitution. This illustrates that Irma was interested in all aspects of life, and real situations, and believed that the the discipline of economics should have the capacity to capture these.

Irma was also the major force behind the development and use of social accounting matrices and computable general equilibrium (CGE) models. These frameworks try to understand and predict how resources are allocated and circulate within the economy, and have become one of the most important practical tools for large scale policy planning. While economic forecasting has its critics, governments and policy institutions around the world continue to rely on the models and methods that Irma pioneered. These tools are still in their early stages of institutionalization. With ever expanding data and computational resources, Irma’s legacy will surely continue to grow. Using CGE models, Irma helped the Korean government develop the economic plans that masterminded its growth and launched Korea to become a major global economic power, attaining living standards beyond the imagining of their ancestors. Indeed, the Korean government recognized Irma with a medal for her contributions, and the head of the Korean development agency visited Irma to reaffirm their appreciation of her only last year. More recently, when California was planning its climate change statewide policy (AB32), Irma’s student David Roland-Holst provided the long-term projections supporting the policy. Those CGE results were the only empirical evidence cited in the Governor’s Executive Order establishing the Global Warming Solutions Act.

One of Irma’s less recognized contributions was the seed of the economic idea that became known as hedonic pricing – how to measure the value of product attributes (e.g. value of a nutrient in food, value of a view from a house or mountain top). She told me that as a woman, she realized before anyone else that products vary by their qualitative characteristics, these values are reflected in prices, and therefore one should be able to estimate the value of individual characteristics from data on prices and different product attributes. As a young researcher, she approached Zvi Griliches with the idea and they collaborated and wrote a classic paper on Index of Quality Change . This paper influenced many, including her friend Kelvin Lancaster, who presented a more expansive framework to model product quality that led to the formal notion of hedonic pricing.

Most of all, Irma loved Berkeley and the University. She appreciated the education she received and many of the great life experiences she had here, and coming back was a dream come true. Her ideas and guidance affected many of us, her colleagues, students, and the profession at large. She served on the university’s most prestigious and demanding Academic Senate committee, the Budget Committee, and received the Berkeley Citation in recognition of her contribution to our campus. Irma always emphasized that while there are many prestigious, private universities, public universities, especially Berkeley, are essential because they are a proven channel for social mobility and change . Irma always emphasized that America and California gained strength from providing talented people, who had been oppressed elsewhere, the means to reach their potential, noting that both she and a Nobel Laureate, Kenneth Arrow (who also passed recently), shared Romanian roots and flourished here. Indeed Irma, Arrow and many others were the products of public institutions. Irma’s work has made economic analysis fuller, more inclusive, and provides a tool for social transformation. Her life was the very embodiment of social mobility and equal opportunity, and an example we can all aspire to.