Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics

I'm currently performing jury service; I wrote this post before being called back into a courtroom this morning and am posting it on my lunch break, here at the Seattle Public Library, which is only a few blocks from the King County Courthouse. This is Day Two for me. As anyone who has done jury service knows, it means mostly sitting around waiting.

Imagine, in one corner of the juror assembly room one can find junk food vending machines that have long yellow stickers on them that say: "Smart food choices promote and maintain health. Eat Smart King County. Move more." Inside this particular machine are potatoes chips, cheetos, fritos, pop tarts, cup of noodles, popcorn, pretzels, Chex mix, oberto sausange, chocolate chip cookies, Ritz crackers, Reese's peanut butter cups, almond joys, & so foth & so on. This machine of the seven vending machines alone is characterized as part of the King County Healthier Snacks Program. "Healthy Vending Where Nutritious Meets Delicious." Whatever can they be thinking?

This morning, before I left home, I downloaded a Guardian story, Nobel economics prize won by first woman, before leaving home. I didn't have time to read it, but thought I might have time to look at it during a waiting period, and I did. It's short. The article notes that although only 40 women have ever been awarded the Nobel, this year five women were, including the 76-year-old Elinor Ostrom.

A political scientist from Indiana University whose work exploring how people come together to preserve their collective resources may provide important clues in the fight against climate change has become the first woman to win the Nobel prize for economics.

Elinor Ostrom, 76, shares the award with fellow American academic Oliver Williamson, 77, whose work focuses on a similar area of the relationship between individuals, companies and government.

The article notes that Ostrom faced gendered obstacles in her career. (Big surprise, hunh.) For one thing, she "was discouraged from taking a PhD when she applied for graduate school." The article also notes that she had an unusually interdisciplinary approach (which I imagine didn't cut much ice among traditional economists): "Early on she gained a reputation for bringing economics, political science and sociology together." And then, when one thinks about the Group Think that worships at the altar of Capitalism that has increasingly dominated economics (and, hell, just about any other discipline in the US) for the whole of her career, one can well believe she was astonished at being awarded the Prize.

What interests her is how common property can be managed successfully through groups in society. One of the first subjects that interested her was management of water resources.She has also looked at the management of fish stocks, pastures, woods and groundwater basins.

The findings of her research have been striking, as the Nobel committee pointed out, because they have challenged the established assumption that common property is poorly managed unless it is either regulated by government or privatised. She has shown how disparate individuals can band together and form collectives that protect the resource at hand.

That is an important message at a time when policymakers are grappling with how to cope with global warming. Again, it challenges a conventional assumption that without regulation or the action of private enterprise, no progress to change individual behaviour can be made.

"A lot of people are waiting for more international co-operation to solve [global warming]," Ostrom said being told she had won the award. "There is this assumption that there are public officials who are geniuses, and that the rest of us are not.

"It is important that there is international agreement, but we can be taking steps at family level, community level, civic and national level … There are many steps that can be taken that will not solve it on their own but cumulatively will make a big difference."

Ostrom's research is a welcome message, these days, when many governments, who are virtually ruled by an oligarchy of large corporations (witness the determination of the health care issue in the US), are refusing to address the problem of Global Warming in any noncursory way.

And now, I have to be getting back to the jurors assembly room.

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