Posts filed under ‘People’

Yoram Barzel’s Tribute to Doug North

A guest post by Yoram Barzel.

Doug North, Some Reminiscences

| By Yoram Barzel |

By the time I arrived at the University of Washington in 1961, Doug had been there for a decade, and he stayed for two more. Moving from one Washington (the University of Washington in Seattle) to another Washington (Washington University in St. Louis) is confusing. Most people associate Doug’s career with Washington University in St. Louis, but it was in Seattle that he did the bulk of the work for which he won the Nobel Prize. His work is well known, and I focus on other aspects of his career and on personal memories.

Doug got his PhD from Berkeley, and he was the first to admit that he hadn’t learned much there. Throughout his time in Seattle, when he needed advice when it came to economic analysis, he asked for it with great humility. Doug had a keen sense regarding which individuals to listen to, and it seems to me that this ability was a major contributor to his productiveness.

The most prominent colleague to provide that advice was the late Don Gordon. Don is not well known, but he was great economist and the intellectual leader of the department. He cherished Doug’s great wisdom. Don persuaded Doug that the right way to do economic research was by testing hypotheses based on sound economic reasoning, and suggested to Doug to apply these in his economic history research; an almost revolutionary approach at the time. Equally revolutionary was Doug’s requirement of his doctoral students to acquire these tools. Doug and Don became close colleagues and intellectual allies and remained lifetime friends.

The tools that Don recommended weren’t in great supply at the UW economics department at that time, and Doug and Don fought hard in an essentially hostile environment to ensure that new hires would possess these skills. By the late 1950s they won the fight, most likely because Doug was an extremely skilled fighter. (more…)

29 November 2015 at 11:54 pm 3 comments

Weingast on North

| Peter Klein |

Barry Weingast remembers Doug North at EH.Net (also at the SIOE blog):

His first book, The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790-1860 (1960), helped foster the revolution that came to be known as the “new economic history,” the application of frontier economics to the study problems of the past. He and Bob Fogel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (1993) largely for their leadership in this new research program.

But Doug understood that the neoclassical economics on which he was raised was inadequate to address the problems he sought to answer, namely, why are a few countries rich while most remain poor, some in dire poverty? Much of his best work addressed this question.

Read the whole thing here.

29 November 2015 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

John Nye Remembers Doug North

A guest post by John V. C. Nye. A related version appears at Reason.

| John Nye |

Douglass Cecil North passed away at the age of 95 on Nov. 23, 2015 at his home in Michigan.  Joint recipient of the 1993 Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, he will be remembered for his path breaking contributions to the field of economic history and his central role in creating the New Institutional Economics.  He spent most of his academic career at two institutions — the University of Washington in Seattle, and Washington University in St. Louis.  For much of the last two decades, he also maintained an association with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Doug will be remembered for many things and others can go through his list of honors, awards, and accomplishments.  But for me, two things will always stand out — his devotion to his students and his personal role in my life as mentor, colleague, and friend.

On the first point, one could note the large number of great scholars who emerged under his supervision in both Seattle and St. Louis or those who were simply inspired by his teaching to pursue careers in academia.  But perhaps it is sufficient to observe that when the Jonathan Hughes Memorial Prize in teaching was instituted by the Economic History Society, North was the first recipient and an overwhelming favorite — not least of which because Jon Hughes had been one of Douglass’s first graduate students.  On the day North received the Nobel prize, he cut off his interviewers to teach his regular courses, and reporters got a first-hand look at North the teacher. (more…)

25 November 2015 at 10:29 am 2 comments

Douglass C. North (1920-2015)

| Peter Klein |

north_postcardI’m sorry to report that Doug North passed away yesterday at the age of 95. North was a key figure in the “cliometrics revolution” which sought to apply neoclassical economic theory and quantitative methods to the study of economic history, for which he received a Nobel Prize. He was also a founder, along with Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson, of the “New Institutional Economics.” His work on economic growth, the role of institutions on national and international economic performance, the relationship between economic and political institutions, and many other fields has been extremely influential.

I don’t yet see many obituaries online but they will appear soon in the usual places. Here are some previous O&M posts on North. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. We’ll add some detailed commentaries soon.

I met North at the inaugural ISNIE conference in St. Louis in 1997, and saw him occasionally after that. He was friendly and approachable and interested in the work of younger scholars. North was an interdisciplinary thinker but always considered himself an economist first and foremost. I remember a small-group dinner at which he revealed an interesting conversation among the founders of International Society for New Institutional Economics (now SIOE). Coase had proposed calling the new organization the “International Society for New Institutional Social Science.” North reported that he replied, “Ronald, if you call it that, I will wish you well, but I won’t ever attend!”

Here is a nice reminiscence from Mike Sykuta.

Update: Here are obits in the NYT and WaPo. The former describes North in a way that makes economic history sound pretty interesting: “a diminutive, effervescent bon vivant [who] indulged his interests in haute cuisine, photography, fast cars, flying his own plane, hunting, fishing, tennis, hiking and swimming, pursuing some of them into advanced age.” (There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Washington University agreeing to pay North’s moving expenses when he took a professorship in St. Louis, then finding out later that transporting his wine collection required a refrigerated truck costing tens of thousands of dollars.)

Update 2: Here is Barry Weingast’s reminiscence, which appeared originally at EH.Net.

24 November 2015 at 4:20 pm Leave a comment

Angus Deaton and Modern Economics

| Peter Klein |

151013-angus-deaton-mn-0735_03fca06ed5077fbef855ea45627fe638.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000Angus Deaton has won the 2015 Nobel Prize for his work on measuring consumption and inequality. You can find lots of discussion in the usual places; Lynne has a nice summary here. I don’t know Deaton’s work well but he has been on the unofficial short list for the last several years and his work is important and influential for economic growth and development, poverty and health, and related areas.

I can’t help poking a little fun at the economics profession, however. You may have heard the joke that economists used to win the Nobel prize for explaining to the general public something that previously only economists understood, but now they win it for explaining to their fellow economists something that the general public has always known, e.g.:

  • Politicians care about themselves (Buchanan).
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket (Markowitz, Miller,and Sharpe).
  • You can’t fool all of the people all of the time (Lucas).
  • Some people know more than others (Akerlof, Spence, Stiglitz).

Deaton’s major insight: aggregate measures of consumption and inequality conceal important differences among individuals.

12 October 2015 at 11:10 am 6 comments

Mokyr on Rosenberg

| Peter Klein |

Further to Dick’s post on Nathan Rosenberg, here is an obituary from Joel Mokyr, who with Rosenberg’s passing is probably the most eminent living historian of innovation and technology. The review appeared on EH.Net.

The economic history profession has lost one of its most original, creative, and wide-ranging minds in the passing of Nathan Rosenberg on Aug. 24, 2015. Rosenberg was one of the founding fathers of Cliometrics, a member of the first group of Cliometricians that with coining the term “congregated at Purdue University in the late 1960s, and which included other luminaries among them Lance Davis, Jonathan Hughes, and Stanley Reiter (who is widely credited Cliometrics”). By 1970, this group had moved away from West Lafayette and dispersed to institutions such as Northwestern and CalTech. Rosenberg was hired by the University of Wisconsin, and was a member of a different group of influential and distinguished economic historians in Madison, including at one time or another Jeffrey Williamson, Peter Lindert, Morton Rothstein, Rondo Cameron, and Claudia Goldin. While at Wisconsin, Rosenberg was the editor of the Journal of Economic History and instrumental in its growing focus on the new economic history that was theoretically informed by economics and quantitatively more sophisticated — the very essence of the Cliometric Revolution.

In 1974, Rosenberg moved to Stanford, where he taught for more than a quarter century until his retirement in 2002. As department chair at Stanford between 1983and 1986 he helped build the department and maintain its position as one of the top economics departments in the country. Moreover, his leadership guaranteed that economic history remained an integral part of the undergraduate and Ph.D. programs and includes some of its most distinguished practitioners such as Gavin Wright and Avner Greif, as well as younger and promising scholars. Today, thanks to Rosenberg’s initiative and entrepreneurship, the Stanford department is housed in a gorgeous building named after Ralph Landau, whose support for research and teaching in economics was first stimulated by a fortuitous meeting with Rosenberg. The partnership with Landau, a chemical engineer and entrepreneur fascinated by economics, led to a fruitful scholarly collaboration between him and Rosenberg, especially in two well-regarded collections they edited together. Thanks in large part to Rosenberg’s resourcefulness, the graduate program at Stanford has thrived and produced many distinguished members of the economic history profession and applied economists working on innovation. While not all of them worked with him directly, his influence on the flourishing of economic history at Stanford was undeniable. Many of the former graduate students he trained and inspired co-authored and co-edited papers and books with him, such as David Mowery with whom he wrote Technology and the Pursuit of Economic Growth (Cambridge University Press, 1989). Without exception these young economists admired and adored him; two of them, Scott Stern and Shane Greenstein, were my former colleagues, and the three of us were instrumental in Northwestern awarding him an honorary doctorate in 2006, in the same class of honorary degrees as the then little-known junior senator from Illinois. If ever there was an academic conspiracy that can be called a true labor of love, this was it. (more…)

7 September 2015 at 9:25 pm Leave a comment

Woodward on Alchian

| Peter Klein |

Alchian and me, circa 2000.

Alchian and me, circa 2000.

Armen Alchian’s friend and colleague Susan Woodward has a nice piece in a forthcoming Journal of Corporate Finance special issue on Alchian. Here are a few passages that may be of special interest to O&Mers:

Orley Ashenfelter asked Armen to write a book review of Oliver Williamson’s The Economic Institutions of Capitalism (such a brilliant title!). I got enlisted for that project too (Alchian and Woodward (1988)). Armen began writing, but I went back to reread Institutions of Capitalism. Armen gave me what he had written, and I was baffled. “Armen, this stuff isn’t in Williamson.” He asked, “Well, did he get it wrong?” I said, “No, it’s not that he got it wrong. These issues just aren’t there at all. You attribute these ideas to him, but they really come from our other paper.” And he said “Oh, well, don’t worry about that. Some historian will sort it out later. It’s a good place to promote these ideas, and they’ll get the right story eventually.” So, dear reader, now you know.

This from someone who spent his life discussing the efficiencies of private property and property rights—to basically give ideas away in order to promote them? It was a good lesson.

Of course, the book review also had a brilliant title: “The Firm is Dead: Long Live the Firm!” It also introduced the term “plasticity” as a not-quite-substitute for asset specificity. (I still prefer the more precise term relationship-specific investment.) And this:

Armen had no use for formal models that did not teach us to look somewhere new in the known world, nor had he any patience for findings that relied on fancy econometrics. What was Armen’s idea of econometrics? Merton Miller told me. We were chatting about limited liability. Merton asked about evidence. Well, all public firms with transferable shares now have limited liability. But in private, closely-held firms, loans nearly always explicitly specify which of the owner’s personal assets are pledged against bank loans. “How do you know?” “From conversations with bankers.” Merton said said, “Ah, this sounds like UCLA econometrics! You go to Armen Alchian and you ask, ‘Armen, is this number about right?’ And Armen says, ‘Yeah, that sounds right.’ So you use that number.”

24 August 2015 at 8:03 am Leave a comment

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