Simon Kuznets was a well-known Russian-American economist, statistician, demographer, and economic historian who was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Belarus at the turn of the century. Despite the fact that he began his undergraduate study in Kharkiv, he was forced to leave the nation before completing his studies. He then emigrated to the United States, where he continued his study at Columbia University, acquiring multiple degrees in a short period of time. Following that, he began his career as a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s research staff, quickly rising to the position of director of the Bureau’s work on national income accounts. Although many people assume he won the Nobel Prize for this work, it was his empirical work on economic expansion that began in northwest Europe in the late eighteenth century and spread eastward to Russia and Japan that got him the prestigious award. Another significant accomplishment of his was the development of the ‘Kuznets Cycle.’ It refers to the cyclical pattern of output and prices during a 15- to 20-year period. He was a well-known scholar as well as a thorough researcher. He began his teaching career at the University of Pennsylvania before moving on to Hopkins University and then Harvard University.
Childhood and Adolescence
Simon Kuznets was born on April 30, 1901, in the Russian Empire-controlled city of Pinsk. Simon’s parents are unknown, except that his father was a banker and that they had three sons, the second of whom was Simon.
In Pinsk, Simon began his primary education. He later migrated with his family to Rovno in Eastern Ukraine, which was also part of the Russian Empire, when he was nine or 10 years old. They resided with his mother’s relatives, who worked as furriers in the area.
He was enrolled in a secondary school in Rovno. His grandparents taught him about Judaism and Jewish history at the same time. As a result, he was reared with a secular and Jewish upbringing.
His father and older brother emigrated to the United States before the First World War began, leaving him and his younger brother to care for their ailing mother. His father changed his surname to Smith in the United States, but Simon never adopted it.
Meanwhile, the family was compelled to depart Rovno, Ukraine, due to Jewish exile. They eventually settled in Kharkiv/Kharkov, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.
Simon began his senior study in Kharkiv High School in October of 1916. He learned about economics for the first time in this school. During this time, Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of innovation and the business cycle had a big influence on him.
Simon Kuznets studied economic sciences, statistics, history, and mathematics at the Kharkiv Institute of Commerce, which is part of the Kharkiv National University of Economics. He received substantial training in statistical and empirical methodologies as well as a broad understanding of economics, history, demographics, statistics, and natural sciences while he was there.
Unfortunately, his study was disrupted when the Soviet government took control of the town following the 1920 civil war and began restructuring university curricula. Although it is unknown whether he had officially left the university at this point, he did not complete his studies there.
He also joined the Department of Labor of the Central Council of Trade Unions’ UZHBURO (South Bureau) sometime in 1920. His first scholarly paper, titled ‘Monetary wages and salaries of manufacturing workers in Kharkiv in 1920,’ was published here.
The family was deported to Poland in 1921, along with many other Jews. Despite their father’s desire for them to join him in the United States, they were hesitant due to their mother’s fragile health. The family chose to relocate when Simon Kuznets was arrested for no apparent cause.
The three then left for the United States. Unfortunately, their mother died on the way to Warsaw and never made it to her goal. In 1922, the two brothers arrived in the United States via the Free City of Dantzig.
In the same year, Simon Kuznets enrolled at Columbia University in New York to begin his economics studies, getting a B. Sc. in 1923 and an M.A. in 1924.
Simon Kuznets became a Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Council in 1925. For one and a half years, he worked with Wesley Clair Mitchell to research price patterns in the economy.
In 1926, he received his PhD after defending the study as his doctoral thesis. This PhD dissertation, titled ‘Cyclical Fluctuations in Retail and Wholesale Trade,’ was the foundation for a lot of his subsequent research.
Career of Simon Kuznets
Simon Kuznets started his career in 1927 as a research assistant at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a private nonprofit research organization co-founded by his PhD advisor, Wesley Clair Mitchell. He remained a part of the organization until 1961.
He continued to work at NBER on his doctoral dissertation, which was based on a long series of economic dynamics conducted in the United States in the mid-1920s. ‘Secular Movements in Production and Prices: Their Nature and Bearing upon Cyclical Fluctuations,’ he published in 1930.
Kuznets took over the National Bureau’s work on national income accounts in 1931. He was hired as a part-time professor at the University of Pennsylvania the following year. From now until 1961, he would combine his teaching duties with his research duties at the NBER.
Kuznets continued his national income studies at the NBER and submitted a full report in 1934. He began by estimating the national income in the United States from 1929 to 1932. It was later extended from 1919 to 1938, and then to 1869.
He found several medium-range economic waves, spanning a duration of 15 to 25 years, after painstakingly researching them. Following that, he linked them to demographic trends, particularly the entry and outflow of immigrants and their impact on the construction industry.
Later, he referred to these shifts as demographic swings or cycles. They’re now referred to as ‘Kuznets Cycles/Swings,’ and they’re viewed as infrastructural investment cycles. He became well-known as a result of his efforts.
He was promoted to full professor at the University of Pennsylvania in 1936, where he remained until 1954. In 1936, he was also instrumental in the formation of the Conference on Research Income and Wealth, which brought together government leaders and academics.
Kuznets was appointed Associate Director of the War Production Board’s Bureau of Planning and Statistics in 1942. He worked in this role until 1944, and his principal task was to analyze the nation’s capabilities to develop its military production.
He was appointed counselor to a number of economically weak countries following WWII, including China, Japan, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Israel. By that time, he’d shifted his focus to the relationship between changes in income and total growth.
His main interests were in population growth, knowledge growth, in-country adaptability to growth determinants, and international economic linkages. This effort resulted in the establishment of the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, which he assisted in founding in 1947.
He also worked with Yale University’s Growth Center to form the Social Science Research Council Committee on Economic Growth, serving as its chairman from 1949 to 1968. In this role, he primarily focused on comparative quantitative analysis of economic growth across nations.
In 1953, he was chosen a member of the Maurice Falk Institute for Economic Research’s Board of Trustees and Honorary Chairman, a position he held until 1963. Simultaneously, he continued to work as a teacher.
In 1954, he left the University of Pennsylvania to become a Professor of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University, a position he held until 1960. After that, he went to Harvard University, where he stayed until 1971. He was also the Chairman of the Social Science Research Council Committee on the Economy of China from 1961 to 1970.
Kuznets’ career lasted well into the 1970s. During this time, he focused primarily on the relationship of science and technology, as well as institutional changes. External elements such as the moral and political climate of society, among others, were also investigated.
Major Projects of Simon Kuznets
Simon Kuznets’ research on national income and its components is well-known. Prior to his work, GDP was primarily calculated on the basis of educated assumptions, with neither government agencies nor private researchers gathering data as methodically as he did.
He began his research in 1931, computing national income back to 1869, then breaking it down into industry, final products, and eventually use. He also worked on income distribution between the rich and the poor. The effort, which lasted nearly a decade, went on to become a standard in the field.
Achievements & Awards
Simon Kuznets was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 1971 in 1971 “for his empirically founded interpretation of economic growth that has led to fresh and deeper understanding into the economic and social structure and process of development.”
The American Economic Association gave him the Medal of Francis Walker in 1977. He was also a member of the organization, and in 1954 he was chosen President.
He was also a member of the American Statistical Association, where he was elected President in 1949. He was a member of the Royal Academy of Sweden, the American Philosophical Society, the International Statistical Institute, and the Economic History Association, among other organizations.
He was also named a fellow of the Econometric Society, a Royal Statistical Society of England honorary fellow, and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.
Personal History and Legacy
Kuznets married Russian-Canadian Jew Edith Handler in 1929. They have two children, Paul and Judith, and four grandkids from them. Paul went on to become an Economics Professor at the University of Indiana, while Judith married a Mathematics Professor at the University of Rochester.
Despite the fact that he raised his children in a completely secular American fashion, he maintained a personal interest in Soviet Russia’s problems and was a vocal opponent of the communist dictatorship there. He was also a voracious reader of Russian literature and, like the majority of Jews, was profoundly affected by the Holocaust.
He made his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near the conclusion of his career, and died there on July 8, 1985. He was 84 years old at the time.
Semen Kuznets Kharkiv National University of Economics was renamed in his honor in 1913, after the Kharkiv National University of Economics, where he studied from 1918 to 1921.