Steve Slavin, 10/12/2015
Current Occupation: I write math and economics books
Former Occupation: Professor of Economics
Contact Information: Steve Slavin was born in Brooklyn and still lives there. His only claim to fame is having been Bernie Sanders' college room mate for one semester.
After graduating from high school, I worked for seven months as an “office boy” to save money for college. On the subway ride to and from work, my nose was buried in an economics book. I would be an economics major and save the world.
One day, my mother said that it was time for me to have a talk with her Uncle Paul, who taught economics at New York University. The word in our family was that had Governor Thomas Dewey been elected president in 1948, he would have asked Uncle Paul to be his Secretary of the Treasury.
Paul Studenski and Esther Rabinowitz had fallen in love at first sight during World War I – at least according to family lore. A pilot in the Polish Air Force, Paul woke up in a military hospital, and there was my mother’s beautiful Aunt Esther holding his hand, while speaking to him in Russian. Whether or not it was love at first sight, they did get married, and would live very happily for the next 46 years.
Although he had a Polish name, it turned out that Paul was actually Jewish. The name, Studenski, had been made up by his great-grandparents. During those times, Polish medical schools refused to admit Jews, so the family made this ironic name change. The Rabinowitzes all got the joke and welcomed Uncle Paul into the family.
One evening after work, I met my mother in Washington Square Park, and we walked over to Paul and Esther’s apartment on Sixth Avenue. We had a very pleasant dinner, throughout which Uncle Paul kept trying to ply me with wine. My mother would remind him that “Steve doesn’t drink. He’s only seventeen.”
After dinner, Uncle Paul picked up a fresh bottle of wine and we went into his study and talked economics for the next couple of hours. He was the first economist I had ever met, and was clearly even more knowledgeable than I was.
We had a very wide-ranging discussion and often disagreed. He was “an Eisenhower Republican,” and I was what would soon be called a “liberal Democrat.” When we left, Uncle Paul smiled and said, “Steve, don’t become an economist. It’s a very controversial field, and you may be too emotional to handle it.”
But I thought to myself, “What does he know?” Years later I learned that he was arguably the nation’s leading expert in public finance.
After graduation from college and doing a short stint in the army, I enrolled in a couple of evening classes at NYU graduate school, where I would study for a PhD in economics. Uncle Paul had died just a few weeks before. No one knew who I was – not that it mattered. Still, I wondered how he might have felt about my ignoring his advice and then enrolling in his own department.
My more immediate concern was finding a full time job. So, once again we turned to my mother’s family for help. Her cousin Bobby seemed like a good choice. A year or two out of law school, Bobby had gotten a job at a large cosmetics company that was in the process of going bankrupt. He made a deal: he would work for one year with no pay in exchange for part ownership. In the course of that year the company became highly profitable and Bobby was made CEO.
One Sunday, my mother and I took a bus out to Bobby and Barbara’s home in suburban New Jersey. The last time I had seen them, they were living in a basement apartment in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. They didn’t need to say that they had been poor and they had been rich, and that being rich was better.
We had a nice lunch, and then sat out by the pool and reminisced. Finally, realizing that we had not said anything about why we had come, my mother mentioned that I was looking for a job.
“Yeah,” said Bobby. “I remember when I was in your position. I had just gotten out of the army when I married Barbara.” Barbara added, “We didn’t have a pot to piss in.” We all laughed.
My mother tried a different tack. “You know, Bobby, Steve is going to NYU to study economics.”
“Really?” said Bobby.” I’ll bet Uncle Paul would have been proud.”
“Well, actually he thought economics might be too controversial for me.”
“Right! He probably said that to anyone he disagreed with. Now don’t get me wrong – I truly loved Uncle Paul, but he was pretty opinionated.”
“And a Republican,” added Barbara.
“Anyway,” said my mother, “Steve is looking for a job. He’ll work days and go to school at night.”
It was getting really embarrassing. “Bobby,” she was practically saying, “please give Steve a job.” I felt like the poor relation asking for a hand-out.
Bobby cleared his throat, smiled, and then he said, “Steve, I’m going to help you. I’m going to do for you what I wish to hell someone had done for me when I was your age.”
My mother looked very hopeful. We waited. I can still remember his exact words: “Steve … never work for an insurance company.”
It took many years – going to school at night and working at an assortment of day jobs – but one spring afternoon I found myself just where I had often dreamed of being. I was sitting in a room at NYU with five of my professors, and had just finished defending my doctoral dissertation.
The way the process works is that you are then asked to leave the room. The professors discuss the dissertation and its defense, and finally your advisor comes out into the hall and addresses you as “Doctor.” Or not.
When we went back into the examination room everyone offered their congratulations. This is perhaps the happiest moment in academia. And then I said that I wanted to tell them something. “I know that most of you remember Professor Studenski.”
Of course they did! They looked at me expectantly. “I really didn’t know him well, but he was my mother’s uncle. He passed away just before I enrolled at NYU.”
They sat there in stunned silence. Then, one of the professors said, “You are so lucky to have had Paul as an uncle. He was so helpful, so encouraging, when I joined the department.” The others remembered how nice he had been.
“Just out of curiosity – and by the way, it’s too late for us to change our votes – but how come you never said anything about being related to Professor Studenski before this?”
“That’s an excellent question. I wish I had an answer.”
And then, one after another, they shook hands with me, and I was left in the room with my advisor.
“I want to buy you a drink,” she said, which was another tradition. A few minutes later, as we sat at the bar, I told her how Uncle Paul had tried to discourage me from going into economics, and how we had never spoken about it again.
“Steve, if Paul could be here, I want to tell you what he would be doing. He would be doing exactly what I’m doing.” Then she raised her glass and shouted, “Congratulations, Doctor Slavin!”