Ostrom, Williamson win Econ Nobel

by Kieran Healy on October 12, 2009

I just heard this from a passing radio and initially didn’t quite believe it. Ostrom, in particular, is a terrific choice. She’s at the other end of the spectrum defined on one side by Freakonomics. Which is to say her work is not flashy, it’s very thorough, and it arrives at, you know, correct answers. I bet the Political Scientists are very, very happy today.



P O'Neill 10.12.09 at 1:03 pm

The background discussion that came with the announcement is quite good.


trane 10.12.09 at 1:21 pm

“I bet the Political Scientists are very, very happy today.”

This one is, especially re: Ostrom. A great choice!


John Protevi 10.12.09 at 1:50 pm

Not an economist or political scientist, but I was really impressed by Ostom’s paper “Policies that crowd out reciprocity and collective action,” in Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005: 253-275.

I have some notes on the paper here. I’d love to get comments on them from someone who knows Ostrom’s work. The point that I think is brilliant in Ostrom’s paper is showing how presupposing strict rational egoism shapes policies that then create social conditions that produce … behavior that can be modeled by strict rational egoism presuppositions.


Dan Hardie 10.12.09 at 1:53 pm

Compare and contrast. Kieran Healy on Freakonomics and Steven Levitt, October 12 2009:
‘(Ostrom is) at the other end of the spectrum defined on one side by Freakonomics. Which is to say her work is not flashy, it’s very thorough, and it arrives at, you know, correct answers.’

Kieran Healy on Freakonomics and Steven Levitt, May 23 2005 (post title: ‘A Wealth of Notions’):
‘Steven Levitt does first-class work that’s reliably provocative in the most productive sort of way…
‘His knack for finding striking answers to tricky problems using recalcitrant data is remarkable…
‘In an ideal world, Levitt would represent a new breed of empirically-oriented researcher working across the boundaries of social science disciplines, expanding our knowledge of a wide variety of social processes and perhaps laying the foundations of a new kind of social science, alongside people working at equivalent boundaries in other fields, like cognitive psychology and economic sociology…
‘it may be that the trend toward rewarding a more interesting empirically-minded socioeconomics (evinced by recent Clark medal winners like Daron Acemoglu and Levitt himself) will provide incoming graduate students with, well, an incentive. This can only benefit economics and social science in general.’

I generally admire people who change their minds. But what’s laughable about Kieran Healy’s performance here is not so much his original love letter to Levitt as the way in which his later put-down contains not the slightest hint that he himself might once have seen Levitt’s work a little differently.


Kieran Healy 10.12.09 at 2:01 pm

Yes, given how things have turned out as others have followed-through on several of his most important papers, I now think my view of Levitt was too generous. Elsewhere in the review (in fact, in some cases above, later in the same sentence or paragraph) you’ll find criticisms about the apparent novelty of the work, queries about its validity, and skepticism about its long-term effect on the social sciences. But I think I could have been tougher.

As for not providing the “slightest hint” of these earlier views, they’re obviously not too hard to find — they’re here the archives or conveniently provided as a PDF on my website.


Dan Hardie 10.12.09 at 2:14 pm

‘Too generous’? Ya think? The title of your post was a paraphrase of ‘The Wealth of Nations’, you compared him to two Economics Nobel Laureates, and you said in an ideal world he would represent a represent a new breed of researcher…? Reads like a tough critique to me. Ahem. Those interested should go to the source material: https://crookedtimber.org/2005/05/23/a-wealth-of-notions/

To be honest, Kieran, compassion kept me from including all your most egregious suck-ups, like ‘Levitt is the successor of people like George Akerlof and Thomas Schelling, thinkers with a broad interest in social processes and a creative approach to understanding them that is rooted in their training in economics but not limited by it.’


Jim 10.12.09 at 2:39 pm

Thank goodness for Dan Hardie, without whom we’d be focusing on frivolous distractions like Ostrom’s and Williamson’s contributions to economics and social science, rather than the far more important issue of what Kieran said about Steve Levitt several years ago.


dsquared 10.12.09 at 2:41 pm

I saw this one and also thought “yes, that’s exactly the sort of thing that Freakonomics ought to have been doing”. In fairness to both Steven Levitt and Kieran, 2005-era Steven Levitt’s work looked a lot more like Elinor Ostrom’s (and SL is still very thorough when he needs to be, eg the Levitt & Fryer paper on Ku Klux Klan membership, although this thoroughness is applied to some pretty odd questions these days). Back in 2005 it wasn’t obvious that the success of Freakonomics the book was going to take Levitt and Dubner down the route that they in fact travelled down. That’s why the best way to assess the book was to take four and a half years to write a review of it in stages, in order to make sure that the potential problems implicit in the work did in fact turn out to be serious.

I mean, the first edition of Freakonomics had the abortion/crime thesis in it, which was and remains an interesting an rigorous piece of work. Superfreakonomics, when it comes out, is apparently going to devote a chapter to the desirability of pumping sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, via an 18 mile long hosepipe held aloft by balloons. (what, do you think I’m lying or something). I think it is pretty fair to say that there has been some development there.

(about the only thing I’ll lay claim to analytical win on was noticing the assertion in the first book that “the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect”. Spotting the twin tropes of ‘ludicrously counterfactual assertions’ and ‘a really juvenile attitude toward sex workers’ were both highly predictive of volume 2).


Barry 10.12.09 at 3:21 pm

I think that Levitt’s trick was having good academic credentialling. If I made that claim about the pay of architects and prostitutes, I’d have blown my (little) credibility immediately. Being a Chicago professor leads otherwise sensible people to repeatedly give one the benefit of the doubt.

Hopefully one of the many outcomes of the financial crash will be to encourage people to realize that economists who say things which sound crazy are frequently crazy or lying, not smarter than everybody else.


roger 10.12.09 at 3:42 pm

Barry at the Big Picture has a nice post on the fact that Eugene Fama was the 2 to 1 favorite in the betting on the next Nobel in Economics, so that this prize is a twofer – a small disproof of the EMH, as well as a good choice in general.


Barry 10.12.09 at 3:54 pm

Roger, that is hilarious. I wonder just how low these guys can go. I’m betting that they’ll be still sinking when on their deathbeds.


Dan Hardie 10.12.09 at 4:10 pm

Obviously the optimum allocation of resources here is to spend some time reading Ostrom and Williamson, having a short chuckle at what was written about Levitt back in the day.

But there is one serious point to take away: If someone is getting uncritical praise, then almost certainly they don’t deserve it. The Crooked Timber seminar on Levitt contained posts about as uncritical as this blog has ever had, alas.

There is always, in every field, some guy who will tell you he is the new Messiah, and it is a good idea to ask a few sharp questions before you start chanting Hosannahs.


dsquared 10.12.09 at 4:24 pm

I think it’s basically the academic version of “please don’t put your life in the hands of a rock’n’roll band, they’ll throw it all away”.


Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 10.12.09 at 9:29 pm

‘Superfreakonomics, when it comes out, is apparently going to devote a chapter to the desirability of pumping sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, via an 18 mile long hosepipe held aloft by balloons. ‘

Compared to the idea of piping supercritical CO2 underwater at a depth where the CO2 would be denser than water, , or scrubbing CO2 from the air using giant towers shaped like cooling towers (in case we fart around so long that even if we go to zero emissions that we’re still fucked, and have to go to negative emission), both which are being talked about seriously as a solution to the AGW problem, the 18 mile hosepipe is pretty mild stuff.


John Quiggin 10.12.09 at 11:21 pm

I haven’t followed more recent stuff by Levitt and Dubner, but as regards Freakonomics itself, I think Kieran and DD are now a bit too harsh. For me, and I think for economists in general, Levitt’s key selling point was finding clever ways to extract meaningful results from superficially unpromising data. The flashy stuff was just wrapping, but it now seems to have taken over.


Barry 10.12.09 at 11:29 pm

Daniel, you really need (or rather, we really need for you ) to put your Freknomics destruction series on CT, in one post of mass destruction.


steven 10.12.09 at 11:39 pm

I’m sure it’s unfair to judge Superfreakonomics on the basis of that article alone. For one thing, it would obviously be absurd for them to argue that a reduction in CO2 emissions is impossible because the whole history of economics proves that 6 billion citizens won’t all individually reduce their emissions, unless they also had up their sleeves an argument proving that governments can’t do it on citizens’ behalf either.


Phil 10.13.09 at 8:58 am

Blimey. Levitt on ethnic profiling:

“Isn’t everyone in favour of that? How could you not be in favour of that? I’m not saying we should lock them up,” he says. “But would it not make sense for MI5 to take a close look at those people? Of course, it’s a slight inconvenience to those innocents who have MI5 scrutinise them. But economics is all about trade-offs.”

It’s the last sentence that really grates with me – as if looking in the mirror and saying “economics” three times could make law and political theory go away. Jeremy Waldron’s written about that particular ‘trade-off’, and not favourably; Dworkin’s written about it, come to that. (So no, not everyone is in favour of that.) And the argument doesn’t even make sense in its own terms: Burkeman himself makes the point that the data Levitt’s relying on for his profile of those people derive from police arrest figures.


dsquared 10.13.09 at 9:14 am

Levitt has a blind spot about false positives, as John DiNardo notes in an excellent review currently on my blog – after discussing a quite arbitrary statistical test for teacher cheating, he concludes “sadly, there was only enough evidence to put a dozen of them away”.


Walt 10.13.09 at 10:32 am

Pumping sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, via an 18 mile long hosepipe held aloft by balloons? I didn’t expect Levitt’s fame to turn him into a Bond villain.


SusanC 10.13.09 at 12:41 pm

I didn’t expect Levitt’s fame to turn him into a Bond villain.

Though it’s Nathan Mhyrvold’s scheme, and he once said (of himself and Bill), “We are no longer megalomanics … we are gigalomaniacs.”


Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 10.13.09 at 2:29 pm

Question: The main page shows 21 comments to this post, but only 13 when you open the comment thread. Is this a function of teh editing of unwelcome comments into the metaphorical round filing cabinet, or some other server issue?


P O'Neill 10.13.09 at 6:54 pm

Levitt reacts

The reaction of the economics community to Elinor Ostrom’s prize will likely be quite different. The reason? If you had done a poll of academic economists yesterday and asked who Elinor Ostrom was, or what she worked on, I doubt that more than one in five economists could have given you an answer. I personally would have failed the test. I had to look her up on Wikipedia, and even after reading the entry, I have no recollection of ever seeing or hearing her name mentioned by an economist. She is a political scientist, both by training and her career — one of the most decorated political scientists around. So the fact I have never heard of her reflects badly on me, and it also highlights just how substantial the boundaries between social science disciplines remain.

So the short answer is that the economics profession is going to hate the prize going to Ostrom even more than Republicans hated the Peace prize going to Obama. Economists want this to be an economists’ prize (after all, economists are self-interested). This award demonstrates, in a way that no previous prize has, that the prize is moving toward a Nobel in Social Science, not a Nobel in economics.

I don’t mean to imply this is necessarily a bad thing — economists certainly do not have a monopoly on talent within the social sciences — just that it will be unpopular among my peers.


Some element of the pundit fallacy appears to be there i.e. the projection of one’s own opinions as those of a larger group.


Walt 10.13.09 at 7:17 pm

Sock Puppet: How odd. I see 21 (now 23) comments.


Ashlie 10.13.09 at 8:31 pm

I am happy to see this, but found your blog through a terribly upsetting piece endorsing amendment No. 2631 to HR 2847 – which seeks to eliminate the political science program at the National Science Foundation (NSF). So a political scientist deserves a nobel prize, but her research doesn’t deserve NSF funding?


Ashlie 10.13.09 at 8:40 pm

disregard my previous comment – I read your previous entry about the amendment so we must agree about this, but FYI I think your blog’s position has been mis-represented elsewhere on the web


engels 10.13.09 at 11:13 pm

I’m not saying we should lock them up.

That’s a relief.


engels 10.13.09 at 11:16 pm

(To clarify, ‘they’ would appear to refer to anyone unfortunate enough to score above a determined level on a list of criteria which includes ‘rent their home, have no savings account or life insurance, be a student, and have both Muslim first and last names’.)


engels 10.14.09 at 12:04 am

Here in the UK, of course, we mostly have to make do with the less flashy, less sexy, low-budget version — Tim Harford. Author of thought-provoking postings such as this.

Dear Economist: Should my useless but sexy PA stay?

Samantha, my PA, is so very unreliable. For example, she failed to pass on your invitation to feature as a responding correspondent in your recent “Dear Undercover Economist” plug article. However, she does have a fantastic pair of, er … feet. Should I fire her?
Bob Casablanca


Substance McGravitas 10.16.09 at 11:25 pm

Tim Lambert on the global warming bits of Superfreakonomics:

I reviewed Freakonomics when it first came out and really liked it. So I was looking forward to the sequel Superfreakonomics. Unfortunately, Levitt and Dubner decided to write about global warming and have made a dreadful hash of it. The result is so wrong that it has even Joe Romm and William Connolley in agreement.

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