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Kornai95: DI, Corvinus and Harvard Organized Symposium to Honor the Legacy of Janos Kornai

To mark the 95th anniversary of the birth of Janos Kornai, an inter-university conference paid tribute to the world-famous economist on 15 and 16 May in Budapest. More than thirty presentations showed how his life's work can be applied to understanding today's complex problems and finding solutions, from the climate catastrophe to the role of the internet and the background to Russian military spending.

The conference was organized by the CEU Democracy InstituteCorvinus University of Budapest, and Harvard University – three institutions, which had developed strong intellectual and emotional bonds with Kornai. The symposium also aimed to lay the foundations for a future Janos Kornai Research Institute by bringing together different generations of scholars influenced by the economist's life's work.

The symposium took place in a hybrid online and offline format: on 15 May at Corvinus and on 16 May at CEU DI. The detailed program is available here.

Among the speakers was 2007 Nobel Prize Laureate Eric Maskin, Gerard Roland, Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Chenggang Xu, Professor of China at Stanford University, and Karen Eggleston, Professor of Health Economics at Stanford, among other distinguished Hungarian, Polish, Belgian, French and American researchers. On Monday, the conference was welcomed by Corvinus Rector Elod Takats and on Tuesday by CEU DI Co-Director Laszlo Bruszt.


The event recalled some of the highlights of Kornai's life's work to provide participants with methodological guidance on how to address the complex, real-world problems of today and continue Kornai's intellectual legacy. The chances for China's further rise, the explanation of the functioning of the EU Recovery Fund (RRF), the common systemic features of post-socialist countries, the relational economy, and Kornai's fellow reformer economists was discussed. A number of papers dealt with Kornai's concept of the soft budget constraint and its extension to the international monetary system, banking, Russian military spending and sport, among others. The importance of the future-orientation of economics beyond GDP, Kornai's influence on heterodox economics questioning profit as a desirable goal, and the interpretation of the Internet as one of Kornai's coordination mechanisms was focused on. 

Challenges of global capitalism such as an ageing society, unpaid female domestic work, climate catastrophe and depleting natural resources, the justification for public investment in climate change mitigation that can be derived from Kornai's work, and Kornai's model of sustainability for today's car market was also discussed, as well as the impact of Kornai on contemporary moral economics, the impact of existentialism on Kornai, and the similarities between the holistic approaches of both Janos Kornai's and Karoly Polanyi's work. Speaking scholars also explored the proper role of professional managers and the state in health care, the contribution of economic development to the destruction of empires, the relationship between pension policy and inflation, and the rationality of private debt relief state programs.


Janos Kornai, who was born 95 years ago and died in 2021, was a prominent figure in political economy, an internationally renowned researcher of the socialist economic system, non-equilibrium systems and the post-socialist transition, and a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and Corvinus University of Budapest. In 1980, he published one of his most famous works, The Deficit, in which he defied earlier theories to show that the deficit was not simply the result of mispricing or inadequate planning, but an intrinsic feature of the socialist system. He introduced the notion of the soft budget constraint, whereby firms and institutions can exceed reasonable financial limits to a significant extent and on a regular basis and still avoid bankruptcy because they are bailed out by the center. In a synthesis of his work, The Socialist System - Critical Political Economy, published just thirty years ago, he showed the economic, social and political structure behind the soft budget constraint.