US-Israeli Nobel laureate missed phone call telling him he had won

Joshua Angrist, one of 3 winners of the economics prize, says he had to call Stockholm to confirm; plays down reports he left Israel over low wages

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Winner of the Nobel prize for economics Joshua Angrist, left, speaks to a reporter with his granddaughter Bella, and wife Mira Angrist, from his home Monday, in Brookline, Massachusetts, October 11, 2021. (Josh Reynolds/AP)
Winner of the Nobel prize for economics Joshua Angrist, left, speaks to a reporter with his granddaughter Bella, and wife Mira Angrist, from his home Monday, in Brookline, Massachusetts, October 11, 2021. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

US-Israeli Joshua Angrist, one of three winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics, revealed Monday that he missed the traditional phone call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences informing him that he had won.

The academy aims to call recipients shortly before it formally announces winners of its prestigious prizes. However, due to the time difference — Massachusetts is six hours behind Stockholm — the call came in the middle of the night, when his phone’s ringer was off.

Instead, he found out later from the flood of congratulatory text messages he received from friends, Angrist said during a round of media interviews, including with Israel TV stations.

“I woke up early in the morning for no particular reason and I saw that my phone was flooded with text messages, and I had had it off because I was not expecting anything special this morning,” Angrist, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said in a phone interview with the Nobel Prize’s media group.

He said he then tried to find the phone number at the academy in order to speak to someone there and “to figure out if it was true.” He told the media that he has several friends who have won Nobel prizes in the past, so obtaining the number was easy enough.

Eventually, after speaking with the Nobel press office, he confirmed the achievement.

“I didn’t really expect it. I suppose everyone says that, and you are supposed to say that, but I think in my case my lack of preparation is evidence I didn’t expect it,” he said.

Angrist said it was “overwhelming” to receive the prize.

David Card of the University of California at Berkeley was awarded one half of the prize, while the other half was shared by Angrist and Guido Imbens from Stanford University.

Speaking with Israeli media, Angrist said he was proud to have won the prize as an Israeli and played down reports that he had left Israel because of low wages.

“Israel has a very respectable place in science and I am proud to contribute to that,” he told Channel 13 news.

Screen capture from video of US-Israeli Prof. Joshua Angrist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics, October 11, 2021. (Channel 12 News

The reports on his leaving for financial reasons apparently stemmed from a 2006 Jerusalem Post article on Israel’s brain drain in which he explained, “I was tired of the situation here. The Israeli system does not reflect the reality of pay differential by field. It’s the public system and it’s not very flexible.”

However, Angrist told Channel 12 his decision to leave was prompted by an offer to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“When I got the call from MIT to be on the faculty, that’s the dream call for a young scholar,” he said.

His wife, Mira, backed up her husband, telling Channel 13 that their move was not just due to financial concerns.

“It was much more complicated. I think it was primarily for professional reasons,” she said.

Angrist, 61, was born in Ohio and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Oberlin College in the US and then immigrated to Israel, where he met his wife, and began a master’s degree at the Hebrew University, but dropped out and joined the army instead, serving in the paratrooper regiment in 1982-1985.

He then returned to the US to complete his master’s and then a doctorate in economics at Princeton. From there he went on to Harvard, where he was an assistant professor, and then in 1991 returned to Israel to teach at the Hebrew University. By 1996 he had returned to the US and became a professor at MIT, where he began the research that eventually led to the Nobel Prize.

Angrist was praised by Israeli academics who have worked with him.

“He is a real friend of the economics department and the faculty of the economics department and its students,” Prof. Victor Lavy of the Hebrew University economics department told Channel 12. Lavy said he has worked with Angrist for 30 years in researching Israel’s economy and its education system.

“Alongside his dedication to economics and research, he has an adventurous side. He is quite an adventurer as far as his hobbies go,” Lavy told Channel 13, giving Angrist’s extreme mountain biking as an example.

In a short clip from another interview with Angrist, broadcast by the station, the mountain bike could be seen in the background as the professor showed off a Japanese sword he pulled from a shelf.

Angrist is an expert on labor economics and the economics of education who has also made contributions to the field of econometrics.

Speaking to the Nobel Prize media, he spoke of the kind of selection bias, leading to incorrect assumptions, that he has researched in education.

“Many people believe that highly successful public high schools or highly selective universities are a key to a successful career,” Angrist said.

“It is often illusionary,” he said.

People who get into selective universities were going to succeed anyway in life because they are the kind of person who gets into a selective college, he explained.

Two Israelis have previously won the Nobel prize for economics. US-born Israeli Robert Aumann won in 2005, and Israeli-born US citizen Daniel Kahneman won in 2002.

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