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About Karl Gunnar Myrdal (Pettersson)
Karl Gunnar Myrdal (6 December 1898 – 17 May 1987) was a Swedish Nobel Laureate economist, sociologist, and politician. In 1974, he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Friedrich Hayek for "their pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and for their penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena." He is best known in the United States for his study of race relations, which culminated in his book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. The study was influential in the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Board of Education.
Myrdal was born on 6 December 1898 in Gustafs, Sweden, to Karl Adolf Pettersson (1876–1934), a railroad employee, and his wife Anna Sofia Karlsson (1878–1965). He took the name Myrdal in 1914.
Education and early career
There is a possibly apocryphal story about an interaction between him and Gustav Cassel, where Cassel was reported to say, "Gunnar, you should be more respectful to your elders, because it is we who will determine your promotion," and he replied, "Yes, but it is we who will write your obituaries."
Gunnar Myrdal graduated with a law degree from Stockholm University in 1923 and a doctorate in economics in 1927. In 1919, he met Alva Reimer, whom he married in 1924.
In Gunnar Myrdal's doctoral dissertation, published in 1927, he examined the role of expectations in price formation. His analysis strongly influenced the Stockholm school.
Between 1925 and 1929, he studied in Britain and Germany. He was a Rockefeller Fellow and visited the United States in 1929-1930. During this period, he published his first books, including The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory. Returning to Europe, he served for one year as Associate Professor in the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.
Gunnar Myrdal was at first fascinated by the abstract mathematical models coming into fashion in the 1920s and helped found the Econometric Society, based in London. Later, however, he accused the movement of ignoring the problem of distribution of wealth in its obsession with economic growth, of using faulty statistics and substituting Greek letters for missing data in its formulas and of flouting logic. He wrote, "Correlations are not explanations and besides, they can be as spurious as the high correlation in Finland between foxes killed and divorces." Professor Myrdal was an early supporter of the theses of John Maynard Keynes, although he maintained that the basic idea of adjusting national budgets to slow or speed an economy was first developed by him and articulated in his book Monetary Economics, published in 1932, four years prior to Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Gunnar Myrdal also developed the key concept Circular Cumulative Causation, a multi-causal approach where the core variables and their linkages are delineated.
He became a Social Democratic Member of Parliament from 1933 and from 1945 to 1947 he served as Trade Minister in Tage Erlander's government. During this period he was heavily criticised for his financial agreement with the Soviet Union. At the same time he was accused of being responsible for the Swedish monetary crisis in 1947.
He was professor of economics at the Stockholm School of Economics from 1933 to 1947 while also a Member of Parliament.
He coauthored with his wife, Alva Myrdal, the Crisis in the Population Question (Swedish: Kris i befolkningsfrågan, 1934). The work of Gunnar and Alva inspired policies adopted by the Minister of Social Affairs, Gustav Möller, to provide social support to families.
Gunnar Myrdal headed a comprehensive study of sociological, economic, anthropological and legal data on race relations in the United States funded by the Carnegie Corporation, starting in 1938. The result of the effort was Gunnar Myrdal's best known work, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, published in 1944, written with the collaboration of R. M. E. Sterner and Arnold Rose. He characterized the problem of race relations as a dilemma because of a perceived conflict between high ideals, embodied in what he called the "American Creed," on the one hand and poor performance on the other. In the generations since the Civil War, the U.S. had been unable to put its human rights ideals into practice for the African-American tenth of its population. This book was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Myrdal planned on doing a similar study on gender inequality, but he could not find funding for this project and never completed it.
During World War II, Gunnar Myrdal was staunchly, publicly anti-Nazi. Together with his wife, Alva, he wrote Contact with America in 1941, which praised the United States' democratic institutions.
Gunnar Myrdal became the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in 1947. During his tenure, he founded one of the leading centers economic research and policy development. After ten years in the position, Dr. Myrdal resigned as Executive Secretary in 1957. In 1956 and 1957, he was able to publish An International Economy, Problems and Prospects, Rich Lands and Poor and Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions. Myrdal was also a signatory of the 1950 UNESCO statement The Race Question, which rebuts the theories of racial supremacy and purity, and also influenced the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Between 1960 and 1967, he was a professor of international economics at Stockholm University. In 1961, he founded the Institute for International Economic Studies at the University. Throughout the 1960s, he worked on a comprehensive study of trends and policies in South Asia for the Twentieth Century Fund. The study culminated in his three-volume Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, published in 1968. In 1970, he published a companion book called The Challenge of World Poverty, where he laid out what he believed to be the chief policy solutions to the problems he outlined in Asian Drama.
Gunnar Myrdal strongly opposed the Vietnam War. In Asian Drama, Myrdal predicted that land reform and pacification would fail in Vietnam and urged the United States to begin negotiations with North Vietnam. After returning to Sweden, he headed the Swedish Vietnam Committee and became co-chair of International Commission of Inquiry Into U.S. War Crimes in Indochina. He also presided over the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an international watch-dog for the arms trade.
He shared the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (otherwise known as the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) with Friedrich Hayek in 1974 but argued for its abolition because it had been given to such "reactionaries" as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
Myrdal was married to politician and diplomat Alva Myrdal in 1924, and together had two daughters, Kaj Fölster (mother of Stefan Fölster) and Sissela Bok, and a son, Jan Myrdal.
Myrdal was hospitalized for two months before he died in a hospital in Danderyd, near Stockholm, on May 17, 1987. His daughter Kaj Folster and his grandson, Janken Myrdal, were present.
Contributions to the philosophy of knowledge
Gunnar Myrdal's scientific influence was not limited to economics. Through the introduction to "Asian Drama" with the title "The Beam in our Eyes" (a biblical reference; cf. Matthew 7:1–2) he introduced the approach mentioned as scientific relativism of values. This behavioral approach is narrowly connected to behavioralism and is built on the idea that the logical gulf between "is" and "ought" is more sophisticated than just dividing premises into categories. The articles edited in "Value in Social Theory" underlines Myrdal's importance to political science. As political science normally is considered more descriptive as economics one might get the idea that Myrdal should not have dealt systematically with the values applied to economics. On the contrary, Myrdal connected social science, political science and economics as a practitioner.
Myrdal published many notable works, both before and after American Dilemma and, among many other contributions to social and public policy, founded and chaired the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Internationally revered as a father-figure of social policy, he contributed to social democratic thinking throughout the world, in collaboration with friends and colleagues in the political and academic arenas. Sweden and Britain were among the pioneers of a welfare state and books by Myrdal (Beyond the Welfare State - New Haven, 1958) and Richard Titmuss (Essays on “The Welfare State” - London, 1958) unsurprisingly explore similar themes. Myrdal's theoretical key concept "circular cumulative causation" contributed to the development of modern Non-equilibrium economics.
Quotes by Gunnar Myrdal
"Education has in America's whole history been the major hope for improving the individual and society."
"Education means an assimilation of white American culture. It decreases the dissimilarity of the Negroes from other Americans."
“The big majority of Americans, who are comparatively well off, have developed an ability to have enclaves of people living in the greatest misery without almost noticing them.”
“In a time of deepening crisis in the underdeveloped world, of social malaise in the affluent societies . . it seems likely that Gandhi's ideas and techniques will become increasingly relevant.”
"The study of women's intelligence and personality has had broadly the same history as the one we record for Negroes ... in drawing a parallel between the position of, and feeling toward, women and Negroes, we are uncovering a fundamental basis of our culture."
"White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in its turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually ‘cause’ each other." (An American Dilemma)
"Correlations are not explanations and besides, they can be as spurious as the high correlation in Finland between foxes killed and divorces."
“It is in the agricultural sector that the battle for long-term economic development will be won or lost.”
Gunnar Myrdal's Timeline
December 6, 1898
Skattunge församling, Dalarnas län
May 17, 1987
Danderyds församling, Stockholms län