“If you have a goal in life, then go for it. Perseverance is the ideal. This is what my mother taught me and what I tell my students,” says Jan Kmenta, emeritus professor of economics and statistics at the University of Michigan, and one of the world’s most respected econometricians.
Prof. Jan Kmenta has received the 2011 Neuron award for lifetime achievements in the field of economics. The annual Neutron awards were established by Nadacni fond Karla Janecka (NFKJ, Karel Janecek’s Endowment Fund) in 2010. There are two awards given annually – one to celebrate lifetime achievements and the other to for young researchers who decide to return from abroad to pursue their academic/research careers in the Czech Republic.
CERGE-EI has been extremely fortunate to have him as a visiting professor since 1992, an experience that has brought him full circle back to the country of his birth and the aspirations of his youth.
Perseverance was a quality Jan Kmenta would need in great measure as the experiences of youth drove him out of Czechoslovakia and away from his goal of becoming a statistician. Born in 1928, he survived Prague’s Nazi occupation to enter Czech University of Technology in 1947 with great hopes for his own future and that of his country.
“After the liberation, we believed the days were over forever when the main front page news would be who had been executed the night before. Then in 1948 the Communists seized power, and began repressing all dissent. I was in a student resistance group, and after a close friend was arrested, I knew I would be next. When the police queried my mother as to my whereabouts, she told them, ‘If you had a twenty-year old son, you wouldn’t know where he was either!’” It would be two years before Jan’s parents would know where he was, or if he was even alive.
With the help of a family friend, Jan had escaped to West Germany. “I thought this was just temporary and that the Western powers would never let the Communists take over Czechoslovakia. I had no doubt that within six months I’d be riding back on an American tank, throwing chocolate to the cheering people.” Instead, it was the beginning of a long exodus from family, homeland, and educational opportunity. After more than a year in German refugee camps, Jan got a visa to immigrate to Australia, the only country other than Venezuela that would take Czech refugees.
“When I arrived, the only English words I knew were ‘I love you.’ I spent my spare time learning English by listening to the radio and puzzling through newspapers with an English/Czech dictionary.” While this experience has given Professor Kmenta empathy with CERGE-EI students, none of whom are native English speakers, in their struggles with the language, he points out, “They have one great advantage that I did not have – the CERGE-EI Academic Skills Center.
The terms of Jan’s visa required him to work under government contract as an indentured laborer for two years. “My first job was literally breaking rocks in a dusty stone quarry, far from anything like a university. I put all of my effort into getting transferred to Sydney, where I finished out my contract working as an orderly in a TB hospital.” He began evening study at Sydney University, supporting himself by day as an accountant. Again, perseverance paid off. He graduated with first-class honors and became a naturalized Australian citizen in1955. After teaching for two years, he won a Fullbright Scholarship for graduate study in economics at Stanford University.
“At Sydney University statistics was taught in the economics department, where pedagogy was very much along British lines, emphasizing argumentation and verbal sophistry, rather than rigorous analysis. Stanford was a revelation! Not until my studies there did I learn that all economics is about optimization subject to constraints.” Using his background in mathematics and statistics, Jan thrived in this atmosphere where economics was emerging as a science, and where he had close contact with professors like Arthur Goldberger and Nobel-prize winner Kenneth Arrow, who chaired his thesis committee.
Over the course of his more than fifty-year career Professor Kmenta has produced an impressive body of innovative work. In addition to his path-breaking Monte Carlo studies of the Cobb-Douglas production function published from1963-66, his most significant achievement came in 1967 when he provided an approximation of the CES production function, which simplified an extremely complex mathematical equation to a formula that could be easily estimated, giving the nascent field of industrial organization a new set of powerful tools for studying firm efficiency.
Professor Kmenta regards his textbook ELEMENTS OF ECONOMETRICS, one of the most widely used and translated textbooks in the field for the past several decades, as his greatest accomplishment. “I am really pleased this book has reached so many people. It’s wonderful to be at a conference in Rio or Delhi, and have someone say ‘I learned econometrics from your book.’” The author of two more books, plus numerous journal articles and research reports, he also served for many years as an editor of the Review of Economics and Statistics and the Journal of the American Statistical Association.
His teaching career has included positions at Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, Michigan State, and the University of Michigan. In 1989 and 1991 the Michigan Economics Society honored him with their “Best Professor” Award. A fluent German-speaker, he has also taught at the University of Bonn, and, for many summers, at the University of Saarland, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1989.
In reflecting on his 20 years at CERGE-EI, Professor Kmenta observes that, “Bringing a thoroughly American graduate program into existence under the circumstances prevailing in the region, with the inherited fossilized and politicized system of university education, the split of teaching and research, and the bureaucratic web of rules and vested interests, was a miracle! I had hoped that by now, two decades into the transition, more universities in the former communist countries would look like CERGE-EI. But it is clear to me that little has changed, and it will take much longer for a truly effective system of higher education to evolve.
This is why CERGE-EI is so necessary. It’s a successful model of what can be accomplished. It’s doing a first-rate job of training a new generation of economic leaders, who are a scarce resource and will remain so for some time.
Because of the great students and research environment, CERGE-EI is one of maybe three places between Germany and Siberia where young native-born economists with PhDs from excellent Western universities would consider taking a job. I also know from my experience reviewing grant proposals for funding agencies that CERGE-EI is the source of most of the best research in the region, as well as a tremendous resource to governments for designing and implementing public policy.”
“Where would I like to see CERGE-EI go in future, aside from continuing to do what it already does well? I’d like to see the local faculty take on more academic and administrative leadership, which is happening. I’d like to see it find new ways to extend its reach to other transition and developing countries, through projects like distance learning and GDN. For instance, a country like a Iraq, which was as heavily collectivized as former Czechoslovakia, could learn a great deal from our experience with the transition process. Most importantly, I’d like to see CERGE-EI continue striving for excellence in advancing economic knowledge, and imparting the ideal that even seemingly impossible goals can be attained.
Barbara Forbes, Marketing Design and Website Project Manager, CERGE-EI