Archive for November, 2015

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

Patents for Institutional Innovation

| Dick Langlois |

I was fascinated to learn about the recent ballot proposal in Ohio to legalize marijuana by constitutional amendment. The unusual aspect of the proposal was that it would have come with a grant of a monopoly in commercial marijuana production to specific investors who owned suitable land. Because they stood to gain considerably from passing the proposal, these investors devoted resources to getting it passed, including professional canvassers, political strategists, and even a mascot with a head shaped like a marijuana bud. Basic Public Choice teaches that legislation benefiting many diffuse constituents is hard to pass because of transaction costs. In effect, the monopoly aspect of the Ohio proposal would have granted a patent to the investors, thus giving them the incentive to overcome the transaction costs of collective action. The proposal failed, and at the same time Ohio voters passed an amendment forbidding the use of ballot initiatives for personal gain. It is interesting nonetheless to think about the economics of such “patents” for institutional innovation.

4 November 2015 at 3:22 pm 1 comment


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