John Nye Remembers Doug North

25 November 2015 at 10:29 am 2 comments

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.

In my own life, North played an outsized role.  He hired me at Washington University in St. Louis straight out of Northwestern where I’d completed a Ph.D. under Joel Mokyr.  I remember the day he came to NU to speak.  The room was packed with students and faculty.  I tried asking a couple of questions, but of course, the faculty got the bulk of his attention.  But he came up to me later and asked me what had troubled me about his talk.  He then asked me to write a detailed letter of critique that he could read back in St. Louis, which I promptly sent off to him the following week.  A short while later he called me up to interview for a position in the Economics Department.  I spent 22 stimulating and wonderful years in St. Louis and I was there to observe the birth of the New Institutional Economics as a full-blown movement and not just a set of ideas.  Political economy, economic history, and institutional discussion flourished at St. Louis in those days.

At various times in the 1980s up through the mid-nineties we had Barry Weingast, Ken Shepsle, Lee and Alexandra Benham, James Alt, Randy Calvert, Gary Miller, Bob Parks, and Art Denzau as regular participants at the political economy workshop and at the informal Friday lunches that Doug organized.  Jean Ensminger from Anthropology and I from Economics were the juniors in the group and we were later joined by Jack Knight, Norman Schofield and Itai Sened in Political Science, and John Drobak from the Law School.  For a few years we also benefited from the participation of Gary Cox and Matt McCubbins when they were at the business school.  Many of the leading young historians of the day, including Avner Greif and Jean Laurent Rosenthal, first spoke at Wash U. at these informal Friday lunches.  Most of the other great scholars and leaders in political economy – from Mancur Olson and Ronald Coase to Yoram Barzel, Gary Becker, Robert Fogel, Oliver Williamson, and Elinor Ostrom were regular speakers at our Thursday Political Economy seminars.  And of course, St. Louis hosted the first conference of the newly formed International Society for the New Institutional Economics with Coase serving as its honorary first president and North succeeding Coase.

I well remember the pattern of the informal Friday lunches before they became a formal seminar workshop with many invited speakers.   A group of us would walk over to a restaurant on Delmar while Doug talked about the ideas he was working on — having first given us a draft to look over.  At the restaurant, the group would tear into his ideas and argue and scream at each other for a good 45 minutes or so.  Then we would begin our walk back while Doug would try to finish up his defense before we made it back to the department.  The thing is, no one ever seemed to like the first drafts of Doug’s work, but Doug patiently took copious notes.  And each time, the drafts got better and better, till they became the full-fledged work that was to establish his fame and reputation.

He was a marvelous colleague and mentor.  When I was struggling with the writing of my book, Doug egged me on by having me give him a chapter every two weeks to read, discuss, and to take apart.  His door was always open to students and faculty and he relished chatting with one and all about anything and everything.  I have never met anyone as welcoming of criticism and as generous with his time and attention as Doug.  When we were both at Hoover one year, a family emergency required my flying to the Far East late at night and Douglass insisted on driving me to the San Francisco airport from Palo Alto.

I well remember that I when I was finally promoted with tenure at Washington U, Doug came up to me and handed me a bottle of wine saying:  “This is almost ready to drink and it’s my last bottle.  Take good care of it.” It was a bottle of the 1970 Mouton Rothschild.  When it was time for me to leave St. Louis for good, he repeated the gesture, this time with a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem.

I have met so many people who can recount an endless number of similar stories that I suspect the laws of physics were allowed to bend around Doug.

When I moved to Fairfax one of the hardest things for me was losing regular contact with Doug, but fortunately we stayed in touch almost to the end.  When I saw him a few months ago, he was clearly suffering and weak, but he still played the genial host and was eager to discuss ideas.  In particular he was always quick to boast about the latest and greatest work he was doing.  He never tired of discussing economics and he never lost his love for research, discussion, and ideas.

As a scholar, he was one of the giants.  But he was also a Prince among men.  Even at 95, he was too young when he passed away.

Entry filed under: Business/Economic History, Institutions, New Institutional Economics, People.

Douglass C. North (1920-2015) Weingast on North

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Douglass North links  |  25 November 2015 at 10:40 am

    […] 11. John Nye on Doug North. […]

  • […] away last week. There are many great tributes to North, including from former student and colleague John Nye, and Yoram Barzel, a giant of political economy in his own right. To match our theme of […]

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