Robert Margo discusses the influences of his colleague and recent Nobel Prize-winning economist Claudia Goldin, as well as her influence on other scholars.

The Swedish Royal Academy has awarded Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics and the Lee and Ezpeleta Professor of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, the 2023 Nobel Prize in Economics for “having advanced our understanding of women’s labor market outcomes.”   

Born in 1946, Claudia grew up in New York City’s Bronx and graduated from the famed Bronx High School of Science, where she was fascinated by microbiology.From there she went to Cornell University, where a sophomore class with Alfred Kahn led Claudia to switch majors to economics. Next was the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago, where she earned her PhD in economics in 1972. After a brief stint at the University of Wisconsin, Claudia moved to Princeton as an assistant professor of economics and later to the University of Pennsylvania, where she became a full professor in 1985. In 1990 she joined Harvard and became the first woman to receive tenure there in economics. From 1989 to 2017 Claudia directed the Development of the American Economy (DAE) Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), whose offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts are a short walk from Littauer Center, the location of Harvard’s department.  She remains deeply involved today with the NBER and currently co-directs a newly launched working group on Gender and the Economy.

A Nobel Prize has been awarded in Economics for more than fifty years, long enough for some prizes to be “intergenerational”. For example, Angus Deaton, who won in 2015, was advised by Richard Stone, who won in 1984. Not only in Claudia’s award intergenerational — her main adviser at Chicago, Robert W. Fogel, was a co-winner in 1993 with Douglass North — it is multigenerational — Fogel’s main advisor, Simon Kuznets, won in 1971. While a graduate student at Chicago, Goldin also worked closely with Gary Becker, another Nobelist (1992). Becker, Fogel, and Kuznets are central figures in the history of the NBER, which was founded in New York in 1920 and whose first director was Kuznets’ PhD adviser, Wesley Clair Mitchell.   

These intellectual relationships, intertwined through the NBER via Chicago, are crucial in understanding Claudia’s approach to economics research. Claudia is rightly praised for her painstaking collection of archival records and her total mastery of historical context and detail, all in the service of a compelling narrative of long run change. These features channel Kuznets and Fogel, two of the greatest empiricists of modern economics. But data, context, and historical detail are not enough—an economic model is the glue that binds them together. Claudia always has a model in mind that, in the grand Chicago tradition, often is rooted in textbook supply-and-demand. The model “talks back” to her while she interrogates her evidence, telling her where to go next. This is the influence of Becker, a giant of modern labor economics and an economic theorist of the first rank.    

The Royal Academy’s announcement praised the central role of economic history in Claudia’s work on women, but her award was not in economic history per se, unlike the joint prize to Fogel and North in 1993. This is despite, as noted by Paul Krugman in the New York Times and Timothy Noah in The New Republic, the enormous importance of Claudia’s research on the economic history of income inequality and of education, much in collaboration with her Harvard colleague (and husband) Lawrence Katz, among other topics. 

For Claudia, economic history is essential in all of its constituents parts. Claudia did not just show that one cannot understand the modern economy outside its historical context but that one cannot understand the modern economy without the economics to analyze that history. Her research on the evolution of the female labor force is a prime (and seamless) example of what I have called the “integration of economics into economic history”. As such, she is a role model for anyone seeking to use the past to understand our present economic condition.       

I met Claudia in the late 1970s, when she was visiting her advisor (and mine), Robert Fogel, at Harvard. Subsequently we were faculty colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania from 1981 to 1986. We collaborated on several research projects in the 1980s and early 1990s, including a paper on the “Great Compression” of the 1940s, a central episode in the history of American inequality. These collaborations profoundly shaped my own approach to economics research.  Back then, Claudia was already an exceptional writer and speaker. I watched (and benefitted) as her communication skills developed far beyond those of other exemplars in modern economics.  In 2013 I was fortunate to organize a conference in Claudia’s honor with two of her former students, Leah Boustan and Carola Frydman, that featured a keynote address by Becker and which resulted in an NBER conference volume, Human Capital in History: The American Record, building on her landmark research.   

Although we stopped writing papers together around three decades ago, we continued to interact professionally through the NBER and, eventually, the weekly economic history workshop at Harvard after I moved from Vanderbilt to Boston University in 2005. There are subfields in economics in which the research culture is described politely as coming from the Dark Side of the Force – not so in economic history. Senior scholars care about junior scholars, no matter where they are from or what they work on, and everyone cares about everyone’s graduate students. It’s like a family, and Claudia is at the center, continuing her predecessors’ esteemed legacy of intellectual cultivation. 

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