In 1937, representatives of the Plywood trust called upon Comrade Professor Leonid Vitalievich Kantorovich with a problem. The trust produced 5 varieties of plywood using 8 different machines. How, they asked, should they allocate their limited supply of raw materials to the various machines so as to produce the maximum output of plywood in the required proportions? As problems go, it was, from this remove unremarkable. Remarkable is that the Comrade Professor agreed to take it on. The so called representatives might have been NKVD. Why? Uncle Joe’s first act upon taking power in 1929 was to purge the economists, or more precisely the Jewish ones. This was well before the purge of the communist party in 1936. Why the economists? They complained about waste in a planned economy `dizzy with success.’ Yet, here were the apparatchiks of the Trust asking the Comrade Professor to reduce waste.

Kantorovich writes, that at the time he was burnt out by pure mathematics. Combined with a concern at the rise of Hitler, he felt compelled to do something practical. And, so he turned his mind to the problem of the Plywood Trust. Frances Spufford, in his delightful work of `faction’ called Red Plenty, imagines what Kantorovich might have been thinking.

He had thought about ways to distinguish between better answers and worse answers to questions which had no right answer. He had seen a method which could do what the detective work of conventional algebra could not, in situations like the one the Plywood Trust described, and would trick impossibility into disclosing useful knowledge. The method depended on measuring each machine’s output of one plywood in terms of all the other plywoods it could have made.

If he was right — and he was sure he was, in essentials — then anyone applying the new method to any production situation in the huge family of situations resembling the one at the Plywood Trust, should be able to count on a measureable percentage improvement in the quantity of product they got from a given amount of raw materials. Or you could put that the other way around: they would make a measureable percentage saving on the raw materials they needed to make a given amount of product.

He didn’t know yet what sort of percentage he was talking about, but just suppose it was 3%. It might not sound like much, only a marginal gain, an abstemious eking out of a little bit more from the production process, at a time when all the newspapers showed miners ripping into fat mountains of solid metal, and the output of plants booming 50%, 75%, 150%. But it was predictable. You could count on the extra 3% year after year. Above all it was free. It would come merely by organising a little differently the tasks people were doing already. It was 3% of extra order snatched out of the grasp of entropy. In the face of the patched and mended cosmos, always crumbling of its own accord, always trying to fall down, it built; it gained 3% more of what humanity wanted, free and clear, just as a reward for thought. Moreover, he thought, its applications did not stop with individual factories, with getting 3% more plywood, or 3% more gun barrels, or 3% more wardrobes. If you could maximise, minimise, optimise the collection of machines at the Plywood Trust, why couldn’t you optimise a collection of factories, treating each of them, one level further up, as an equation? You could tune a factory, then tune a group of factories, till they hummed, till they purred. And that meant —

An english description of Kantorovich’s appeared in the July 1960 issue of Management Science. The opening line of the paper is:

The immense tasks laid down in the plan for the third Five Year Plan period require that we achieve the highest possible production on the basis of the optimum utilization of the existing reserves of industry: materials, labor and equipment.

The paper contains a formulation of the Plywood Trust’s problem as a linear program. A recognition of the existence of an optimal solution at an extreme point as well as the hopelessness of enumerating extreme as a solution method. Kantorovich then goes on to propose his method, which he calls the method of resolving multipliers. Essentially, Kantorovich proposes that one solve the dual and then use complementary slackness to recover the primal. One might wonder how Kantorovich’s contribution differs from the contributions of Koopmans and Dantzig. That is another story and as fair a description of the issues as I know can be found in Roy Gardner’s 1990 piece in the Journal of Economic Literature. I reproduce one choice remark:

Thus, the situation of Kantorovich is rather like that of the discoverer Columbus. He really never touched the American mainland, and he didn’t give its name, but he was the first one in the area.

As an aside, David Gale is the one often forgotten in this discussion. If the Nobel committee has awarded the prize for Linear Programming, Dantzig and Gale would have been included. Had Gale lived long enough, he might have won it again for matching making him the third to have won the prize twice in the same subject. The others are John Bardeen and Frederick Sanger.

Continuing with Spufford’s imaginings:

— and that meant that you could surely apply the method to the entire Soviet economy, he thought. He could see that this would not be possible under capitalism, where all the factories had separate owners, locked in wasteful competition with one another. There, nobody was in a position to think systematically. The capitalists would not be willing to share information about their operations; what would be in it for them? That was why capitalism was blind, why it groped and blundered. It was like an organism without a brain. But here it was possible to plan for the whole system at once. The economy was a clean sheet of paper on which reason was writing. So why not optimise it? All he would have to do was to persuade the appropriate authorities to listen.

Implementation of Kantorovich’s solution at the Plywood trust led to success. Inspired, Kantorovich sent a letter to Gosplan urging adoption of his methods. Here the fact that Kantorovich solved the dual first rather than the primal is important. Kantorovich interpreted his resolving multipliers (shadow prices today) as objectively determined prices. Kantorovich’s letter to Gosplan urged a replacement of the price system in place by his resolving multipliers. Kantorovich intended to implement optimal production plans through appropriate pieces. Gosplan, responded that reform was unecessary. Kantorovich narrowly missed a trip to the Gulag and stopped practicing Economics, for a while. Readers wanting a fuller sense of what mathematical life was like in this period should consult this piece by G. G. Lorentz.

After the war, Kantorovich took up linear programming again. At Lenningrad, he headed a team to reduce scrap metal produced at the Egorov railroad-car plant. The resulting reduction in waste reduced the supply of scrap iron for steel mills disrupting their production! Kantorovich escaped punishment by the Leningrad regional party because of his work on atomic reactors.

Kantorovich’s interpretation of resolving multipliers which he renamed as objectively determined valuations put him at odds with the prevailing labor theory of value. In the post Stalin era, he was criticized for being under the sway of Bohm-Bawerk, author of the notion of subjective utility. Aron Katsenelinboigen, relates a joke played by one of these critics on Kantorovich. A production problem was presented to Kantorovich where the labor supply constraint would be slack at optimality. Its `objectively determined valuation’ was therefore zero, contradicting the labor theory of value.

Nevertheless, Kantorovich survived. This last verse from the Ballard of L. V. Kantorvich authored by Josph Lakhman explains why:

Then came a big scholar with a solution.
Alas, too clever a solution.
`Objectively determined valuations’-
That’s the panacea for each and every doubt!
Truth be told, the scholar got his knukcles rapped
Slightly rapped
For such an unusual advice
That threatened to overturn the existing order.
After some thought, however, the conclusion was reached
That the valuations had been undervalued