Saturday, June 23, 2012

Elinor Ostrom and Anna Schwartz, Two Great Economists Pass

Economics has lost two of its greatest female economists in the past month.  Elinor Ostrom was a brilliant economist who published some of her best works on one of the most difficult subjects of our times: water.  Common resources such as water are always challenges to individuals, and these challenges are often met by furthering private property rights.  However, aspects of water make it very difficult to differentiate and privatize.  Of all the people that have written on this subject, hers might be the best solution.  She has written on it extensively throughout her career, but my favorite article is "Legal and Political Conditions of Water Resource Development" with her husband, Vincent Ostrom.

(photo: Embassy of Sweden in the United States)

Her most cited book is Governing the CommonsHer last article was published the day that she died, "Green from the Grass Roots."  She is an important person within the Institutional school of economics.  She won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, and was the first and so far only woman to be honored.

If you were to ask ten economists to recommend ten books to undergraduate economics students, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 might appear on all ten lists.  It is one of the most important books ever published in the subject.  Anna Jacobson Schwartz wrote that book along with Milton Friedman, who went on to become a Nobel laureate and famous, but said that Dr. Schwartz actually did much of the empirical heavy lifting.  That is also easy to infer by her other major works.  She also notably co-wrote Growth and Fluctuations in the British Economy, 1790-1850, and Monetary Statistics of the United States.  She has been associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research since 1941 (!).  Her last article was published days before her death earlier this week, "Foreign-Exchange Intervention and the Fundamental Trilemma of International Finance: Notes for Currency Wars" on current monetary problems.  She is clearly one of the greatest monetary economists of all time.

Every economics department that I've ever seen has many more male professors and students than female.  This is not a terrible outcome, but it is not ideal.  Although we have just lost Ostrom and Schwartz there are currently more notable female economists than ever before.  Claudia Goldin is one of the best economists on the subject of inequality.  Stephanie Schmitt-Grohe is a terrific monetary economist.  Esther Duflo is a groundbreaking economist on development and microeconomic techniques.  Christina Romer is one of the best economic historians of all time.  Her contribution to our understanding of the Great Depression is as important as Friedman/Schwartz and Benjamin Bernanke.  Carmen Reinhart wrote the best popular economics book last year, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly along with Kenneth Rogoff.  There are so many great female economists now that I can't list them all, but it still hurts to lose these two.

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