In the fall of 1978, two students from backgrounds that could not have been less similar moved into connecting rooms in Weld Hall.
The first had been in the country only two years, having fled his native Russia at age 16. He had spent the time in America attending an inner-city public school in Rochester, N.Y., and arrived at Harvard with a still-shaky command of English. The second student, the son of two Harvard alumni, had attended a prestigious private school in Washington, D.C. He could read a book in less than 20 minutes and manage to retain everything.
Today, the first student, Andrei Shleifer ’82, is a Harvard professor, one of the most widely-cited economists in the world and a winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, the biennial award given to the top economist under the age of 40. His freshman suitemate, J. Bradford DeLong ’82, is now an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who has written several influential papers on economic history and a host of macroeconomic issues, and runs one of the most popular academic blogs on the Web.
In the years since Shleifer and DeLong first lived together in Weld Hall, they have collaborated on issues including trading and markets, the Great Depression, and the development of cities in America.
But the two were working together years before they would ever publish anything in an economics journal. And their first steps on the path of academic stardom began on the east side of Harvard Yard.
A YEAR IN THE YARD
After arriving in the U.S. in 1976, Shleifer turned to the popular television show Charlie’s Angels for his first lessons in English. When he moved into Weld in 1978, Shleifer says that he was totally unprepared for the rigorous academics that Harvard expected from him.
“I was definitely not acclimated by the time I got here,” Shleifer says. “I did not do very well freshman year, especially in Expos.”
He applied to Harvard only because a recruiter came to his school and handed him an application, and after being admitted, he entered the College intending to study math.
“Math 55 permanently disabused me of the idea of becoming a mathematician,” Shleifer says. Though he would tough the class out and remain a math major, he says he became drawn to economics—a subject he knew nothing of in high school—after taking some introductory courses in the field.
DeLong, in contrast, breezed through his first year.
Shleifer and DeLong’s freshman year roommate, Joseph Evall ’82, both say that DeLong was primed for Harvard, and that his reading ability left them in awe.
“He would read a book with lightning speed—far faster than any of the rest of us who were slogging through the material,” Evall says, “and he would retain 100 percent of what he read.”
Shleifer says that after seeing this, he thought DeLong was “some kind of a super-human,” but he realized later that DeLong just “knew how to skip pages.”
“Nobody ever told me about skipping pages,” Shleifer says.
Even though DeLong would eventually choose social studies as his major, he joined Shleifer in Math 55—a class the math department still calls “probably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country.” DeLong’s secondary preparation came through for him again, and he credits this with impressing Shleifer favorably enough that they have continued to collaborate over the years.
“I had had the first quarter of the course in high school the previous year,” DeLong said in a toast when Shleifer won the Clark Medal in 1999. “So for the first quarter of the year, conversations about math between me and Andrei would end with me remembering something from the previous year, saying ‘How about if we do it this way?’ and finding out that it worked.”
DeLong added: “So Andrei’s first impression was that I was a true genius. This first impression has stuck with him—in spite of much evidence to the contrary—for 21 years, and has greatly enriched my life.”
ONE IN CAMBRIDGE, ONE TO CAL
The two remained friends throughout their time at Harvard, taking classes together and arguing a great deal, though Shleifer says that DeLong “won every argument.”
In his sophomore year, Shleifer made an appointment with Lawrence H. Summers—who had managed to become an assistant professor at MIT while still studying for his PhD at Harvard—to point out mistakes in a paper Summers had written.
The two hit it off. Shleifer says he became a research assistant to Summers at the end of that year, staying with the future Secretary of the Treasury for the next three or four years.
“He was much more influential than any classes,” Shleifer says.
DeLong, meanwhile, says that he took extremely challenging classes in a broad range of fields, spanning everything from econometrics to Straussian philosophy. He also became close to then-Harvard professor William Lazonick, a business historian who now teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
Lazonick ended up advising DeLong, who is now noted for his work in economic history, on his thesis, which examined the industrial revolution through the lens of classical economic theory. Shleifer and DeLong would actually write one paper on a similar topic—the growth of cities before the industrial revolution—which Shleifer credits to DeLong’s interest in and knowledge of history.
After graduating from college, Shleifer chose MIT for graduate school while DeLong remained at Harvard. Summers moved to Harvard the next year, and the three would soon after collaborate on a series of papers on “noise trading”—the buying and selling of stocks in the absence of new information that allows traders with information to make money.
THE ROARING NINETIES
After Shleifer and DeLong completed their doctorates, each taught at a few different universities before joining Harvard and Berkeley, respectively. But pure research was not the only thing on either of their plates in the early 1990s—each soon took up an important policymaking role, and Shleifer’s would soon land him in hot water.
In 1991, Summers became chief economist at the World Bank. That same year, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russian-American Shleifer—under the auspices of the World Bank—became an adviser to the Russian government, eventually leading economic liberalization efforts through the Harvard Institute for International Development.
The advisory role turned out to be ill-fated. Shleifer and his wife, hedge fund manager Nancy Zimmerman, made investments in the Russian economy even as he advised the government on economic reform. The conflict of interest would lead to a federal lawsuit against Shleifer, one of his associates, and Harvard, resulting in a $26 million fine against the University and $2 million penalties apiece for Shleifer and the associate. When the dust settled, the University stripped Shleifer of his endowed chair—but not tenure—and the furor contributed to the ouster of Summers from the Harvard presidency.
DeLong, who had also taken on a policy role in the early 1990s, contributed to many of the early economic initiatives of the Clinton administration, though he would also become sharply critical of at least one of his colleagues by the time he left Washington.
Both Summers and DeLong had joined the Treasury Department when Bill Clinton took office in 1993, with DeLong working on budgetary issues and free trade.
He also played a role in the unsuccessful effort at creating universal health care, laying much of the blame for the legislation’s demise at the feet of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, who had led the effort.
In one of the most famous posts on his blog, DeLong wrote that, based on his experience working with Clinton, “there is no reason to think that she would be anything but an abysmal president.” He adds that she “had neither the grasp of policy substance, the managerial skills, nor the political smarts” to lead the effort.
With his legal troubles now permanently behind him and his year-long sabbatical over, Shleifer says he continues to concentrate on the things that are most important to him: students, colleagues, and research.
This year, Shleifer has emerged on campus as a much-sought-after undergraduate instructor: he teamed up with Professor of Economics David I. Laibson ’88 to teach a course on psychology and economics, and also taught a small seminar on political economics as part of the economics department’s first ever junior tutorial program.
Meanwhile, DeLong, by way of the often-incendiary posts on his “semi-daily journal,” has become one of the nation’s most influential academic commentators. He writes widely on the media, politics, and economics, frequently excoriating investment strategist Don Luskin, who DeLong terms the “Stupidest Man Alive.” But the blog is just an extra-curricular activity—DeLong chairs Berkeley’s political economy major while keeping up with his teaching and research, even though he has written that universities should be rewarding blogging alongside more traditional academic pursuits.
“They have both conducted research on a wide-range of economic issues that are of critical importance,” Maier Professor of Political Economy Benjamin M. Friedman ’66 says of DeLong and Shleifer. “They are exemplary economists and stars in the profession.”
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.