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The Economist: Three Who Changed Our Thinking

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The author of this entry is responsible for this content, which is not edited by the Wilson County News or
July 2, 2012 | 1,832 views | 1 comment

M. Ray Perryman

Deaths, in close proximity, of two prominent female economists caused my thoughts to turn both to them and a third who shaped both the past century and the current one. I decided I would share a bit of perspective.

The only woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in economics was Elinor Ostrom, who died in early June. She won a share of the Prize (formally, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) in 2009 for her work on resource sharing. Her research demonstrated that people are capable of creating rules and institutions for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources such as forests or water resources.

Born in 1933, Lin Ostrom came of age during a time when women were rarely allowed into graduate programs, particularly those as math intensive as economics. In fact, after she completed her undergraduate studies, employers’ questions related to shorthand and typing, and Lin went to work as a clerk in a large clerical pool. After a year in that setting, however, she was hired as an assistant personnel manager; she later attended graduate school at UCLA, one of only three women in a 40-person program.

Beginning with her work as a graduate student, Lin worked with issues of political economy. Together with her husband Vincent, she founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Polity Analysis, which aimed to bring together scholars across disciplines such as economics, political science, and others to solve problems with management of resources ranging from forests to irrigation systems to police forces. Elinor Ostrom spent her teaching career at Indiana University, where she is remembered as an outstanding teacher and colleague as well as researcher and thinker. Her contributions to the field of economics will live on, both through her research and through the Workshop.

Because her work was normally classified as political science, her selection for the Nobel Prize was controversial, particularly since she was the first woman so honored. I felt as if the Prize was well deserved, as she demonstrated through real world research that we really can do a lot of things in a much more efficient and less complicated way than we choose to do so. I did not think she should have been the first, however, only because I felt two others who came before deserved it as well, one of whom also died in the past couple of weeks, which leads me to a few words about Anna Schwartz.

Anna was a research economist who collaborated with Milton Friedman, and many feel she should have shared the Nobel Prize he won in 1976. The duo worked together to popularize the set of theories known as “monetarism,” which deal with the size and turnover of the money supply and how it relates to inflation and economic activity. Friedman was a powerful intellect, and Anna was a painstaking compiler of data and synthesizer of history. She co-authored “A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960” with Friedman; published in 1963, the work is considered a classic. Frankly, I believe that Friedman was sufficiently original in many areas that he deserved to receive the Prize alone. However, other Nobels have been awarded to those who pioneered the methods for data collection and verification. A case can certainly be made that she should have shared in those awards.

During her more than 70 years at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), she worked with Milton Friedman on a number of other publications. Even in her 90s, Anna Schwartz continued to offer opinions regarding monetary policy, writing articles criticizing government and Federal Reserve action during the financial collapse that began in 2008. On a personal note, I called NBER as a young graduate student in the mid-1970s seeking data for my dissertation. I was amazed a few hours later when Anna called me back personally and made sure I had what I needed. We met soon thereafter, and she was always very supportive.

The woman with the most lasting influence on the field of economics to date is Joan Robinson, who died in 1983 without receiving the Prize. Joan Robinson introduced the theory of imperfect competition in 1933, and studied issues in economics such as growth theory, capital aggregation, equilibrium theory, unemployment, and much more. Her published works span some four decades and were pathbreaking. She possessed a brilliance that is only seen a few times each century. Unlike Lin and Anna, she was anything but a gentle soul. She once stared down the entire MIT economics faculty (including Paul Samuelson) in an intellectual dispute over the theory of capital, and they blinked first. It is difficult to understand why she did not receive the Prize. Time magazine devoted a long essay to her in the mid-1970s in anticipation of her receiving it. I doubt it was because of her gender; other females had won Nobels in the sciences. It could well be because her politics went to the extreme in her later years or because her combativeness gained her few friends; in any case, her achievements go well beyond many who have won.

All of these women shaped the thoughts of people both within and outside of the field of economics. Even if you’re not familiar with their names, their theories are at work in a variety of contexts in our lives every day. From the policies of Ben Bernanke to widely accepted “economics 101” ideas to solving shared resource problems (such as water), the work of these three women is enduring and worthy of ongoing recognition.

Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group ( He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.
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Elaine K.  
July 2, 2012 2:16pm
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