Nobel Prize winner Joshua Angrist’s career includes many Israel experiences – and Maimonides teachings, too

Joshua Angrist receives his Nobel Prize medal from Karin Olofsdotter, Ambassador of Sweden to the U.S. Due to Covid-19, the ceremony took place in Washington, D.C. instead of Stockholm. (Photo by Parag Pathak)

Former BSF grantee Joshua Angrist can be called many things – economist, professor, author, cyclist, and kung fu aficionado, just to name a few. But last fall, he awoke to the news that he would forever have another title – Nobel Prize winner. This makes him the 48th current or former BSF grantee to become a Nobel laureate.

Angrist, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT, and Guido W. Imbens, of Stanford University, share the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economics with David Card of the University of California at Berkeley. They were cited for working out the methodological issues that allow economists to draw solid conclusions about cause and effect, even when they cannot conduct studies according to strict scientific methods.

The Nobel committee said the three shared the prize for providing “new insights about the labor market” and for showing “what conclusions about cause and effect can be drawn from natural experiments.”

With natural experiments, researchers use situations in which chance events or policy changes result in groups of people being treated differently. Angrist, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, says his many experiences in Israel helped inspire his work in natural experiments. In the early 1990s, he was teaching at Hebrew University in Jerusalem when he got to know colleague Victor Lavy, who still teaches there.

“Victor and I connected early on, and I was very happy to have a collaborator who was into what I was into,” Angrist said.

In 1996, Angrist and Lavy partnered on a BSF-funded project evaluating the effect of class size on children’s academic achievement. Angrist said Israel was an ideal setting for the project, not only because he had lived there, but also because Israel’s school system had a rule that capped all student class sizes at 40. This cap became known as the Maimonides Rule, since it was inspired by Maimonides’s declaration in the Talmud that no class should have more than 40 students. By virtue of the rule, classes with more than 40 students had to split up, while classes of 40 and under did not.

Joshua Angrist (left) and Victor Lavy enjoying a fall hike in New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch. (Photo courtesy of Joshua Angrist)

By comparing classes with enrollments just above and just below the cutoff, arguably a good natural experiment, Angrist and Lavy found that when the large class split into two smaller classes, achievement in smaller classes outstripped that in larger classes. This supports the idea that small classes facilitate learning.

Angrist and Lavy have maintained an enduring partnership, working together in researching economies and education systems not only in Israel, but in other nations such as Morocco and the United States. They were even part of a team that revisited their Israel class size project several years later. They called the project Maimonides Rule Redux. They used a larger sample size – and produced different findings. This time, the data showed little relationship between class size and achievement.

To Angrist, supposed contradictions like this are not necessarily unusual. Cause and effect – the tenants of natural experiments – can indeed produce different outcomes under different circumstances.

Lavy credits Angrist with revolutionizing the study of natural experiments.

“Josh has made an enormous impact, not only in how natural experiments are used, but also in the way we look at data and interpret the findings,” Lavy said.

Angrist’s and Lavy’s partnership has often extended to their respective students, enhancing promising careers for new generations of scientists and researchers.

“Many of my students have worked with Josh and many of his students have worked with me,” Lavy said. “This is something that makes both of us very proud.”

Reactions to the Nobel Prize

For the second straight year, Covid forced changes to the traditional Nobel ceremonies. Instead of going to Sweden, Angrist accepted the honor at the National Academies of Science headquarters in Washington, D.C.

To Angrist, the venue had its advantages. It meant that family, friends and colleagues who would have found it difficult getting to Europe, were able to see him receive the honor – including his proud parents.

“I was so lucky that my parents lived to experience the nachas of their son receiving that honor,” Angrist said. “It meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to them.”

While Angrist’s win was celebrated in Israel, it also caused a bit of a stir, especially surrounding his decision to leave Hebrew University for a position at MIT in 1996. Angrist insists that this move reflects the fact that a tenured position in the MIT Economics Department is a dream job too good to pass up. Yet it exemplified what some in Israel consider a “brain drain” that causes Israel to lose in-demand professors to universities in other nations that can offer better positions and more money.

“That’s a healthy debate to have, and Israelis should have it,” Angrist said.

However, he wants to stay out of that debate.

“I haven’t lived in Israel since 1996, so I don’t think it’s fair for me to get into issues like this today,” he said.

He doesn’t mind if Israel still wants to claim him as one of their own. He still has dual citizenship in the United States and in Israel. And his life experiences there are many. More than a decade before he taught at Hebrew University, he began master’s degree studies there before dropping out to become a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces. He also served as a member of Israel’s Finance Ministry Working Group on Israeli-Palestinian Labor Market Relations in 1994. On a personal level, he met his wife, Mira, in Israel, and he visits there as much as possible – most recently last summer, when he returned to Hebrew University to give a speech.

As for science, Angrist said the combination of Israel’s rise as a tech hub, as well as a larger private sector, has contributed to Israel’s reputation as a science leader throughout the world.

“Israel certainly punches above it’s weight for a country its size,” he said.

Dismantling the stereotype of the dull economist

Joshua Angrist in his MIT office with his favorite mode of transportation. (Photo by Alan Kravitz)

Economists may have a reputation for what Angrist calls “dismality”, but he says that reputation is unfair. A visit to his office proves that. Sure, there are many books and papers, but there’s also Angrist’s prime mode of transportation – his trusty bicycle. He bikes to work every day – even during Boston’s frigid winters.

“The only thing that stops me is blowing snow or driving rain,” he said. “I certainly like the exercise, and I’m not super risk-averse.”

Then there’s his fascination with kung fu, which is plentiful in his office – including photos of him with kung fu swords. Angrist deploys with kung-fu culture in Mastering `Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect, an influential book written with Jorn-Steffen Pischke, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The ‘metrics here is econometrics, which involves the quantitative application of statistical and mathematical models. Researchers use data to develop theories or test existing hypotheses in economics and to forecast future trends from historical data. In the book, the authors (who call themselves Master Joshway and Master Stevefu) use kung fu-themed humor to present the essential tools of econometric research.

Lavy said the book exemplifies one of Angrist’s core beliefs – that economics can be taught in ways that make it more relatable and even fun.

“I can tell you that before this book, econometrics was one of the most hated courses among students. Josh helped to make that topic more friendly by presenting it in such a humorous way,” Lavy said.

One of Angrist’s heroes is Kwai Chang Caine, from the classic Kung Fu television series. Caine wanders the 19th Century American West in search of his U.S.-born half-brother. As he searches, Caine questions all he sees in human affairs, uncovering hidden relationships and deeper meanings. That, Angrist believes, is precisely what economists do.

“Economics is as exciting as any science can be,” Angrist said. “The world is our lab, and the many diverse people in it are our subjects.”