Nobel Agents

Dynamite Old Man
Dynamite Old Man

In the field of the sciences, research and achievements at the cutting edge is often poorly understood by High School (or Junior College) students. Take for example this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics; it was given to physicist Charles Kao, “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication” and two other physicist “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor”.

Not many of us actually concern ourselves with the workings of the CCD sensor (it’s something found in digital cameras) nor optical communications and I’m sure pre-college education focuses on none of that. Students who are really interested in Physics might not be able to directly draw links between the inventions and discoveries made by the Nobel Laureates and the stuff he reads or study about. The maturity of a subject like Physics almost definitely ensures that stuff studied at the forefront is highly specialized and in some sense, narrow.

On the other hand, economics is more accessible than it appears to be. The Nobel Prize for Economics this year was awarded to economists (Oliver E. Williamson) “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm”; and (Elinor Ostrom) “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. It is interesting to note that both of these economists are studying workings of important economic agencies (or agents) outside the workings of the traditional market mechanisms.

The prize rightly demonstrates a heightened appreciation of economics as a subject to study cost-benefits and incentives rather than one that scrutinizes money. Posner neatly summarizes Williamson’s work and its implications in his entry while Becker discuss the inherent difficulties in real world organizations on Becker-Posner Blog. It should be easy for a JC student with background in economics to realize the link between Williamson’s work and the stuff he/she is studying after reading Posner’s entry. It is the ability to draw this link that reflects how much of a science the study of economics actually is – the basic principles of incentives, cost-benefits analysis all applies even when there might not be the perfect information or perfect rationality in the real world.

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