Ken Arrow: The Greatest

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Ken Arrow passed away at the age of 95 yesterday.

There will be many who write about his many achievements. Ken won the Nobel prize in 1972 (shared with John Hicks) and was and still is the youngest person to ever win that award. This is all the more amazing since he got a late start — interrupted by the war and really only started to publish in economics two decades earlier. In that time, he could have won several Nobel prizes. Uncontroversially, for social choice theory, general equilibrium theory, contributions to finance, the founding of health economics and then maybe a little more controversially for founding the economic approach to innovation, dynamic public goods theory, the economics of information, and organizational economics. And even there someone, somewhere is going to say I left something out. His was a remarkable run. One of the great minds of the Twentieth Century who moved economic science forward decades in a single stroke.

But let me drift back to some things more personal. I went to do my PhD in Stanford because Ken was there. His Limits of Organization had taught me that economics could be interesting and convinced me to devote my life to it. He was once of my advisors for my PhD.

By the time I arrived in 1990, Ken had (supposedly) retired but he continued to teach and would come in every day and sit in the foyer of the economics building and read his mail. He had to do it there because his office was a complete mess. There was a large table with a stack of papers half a foot high all over it. Occasionally, I would make fun of him as he sat in a corner for fear of toppling the structures over. I would reach deep in the pile and pull out something. It was usually some correspondence from some far flung place. He had so many fans. He just hadn’t quite been able to get around to replying to them.

Was he as smart as people say? Absolutely. I only knew him in the last quarter century of his life. He would regularly come to seminars. Fall asleep. Then wake up and ask such a perceptive question that the speaker — who knew he had been asleep — didn’t understand why they had bothered to give the talk up to that point. I once gave a seminar in front of a sleeping Ken Arrow. It is an experience, that’s for sure.

Even then other faculty at Stanford would lament that he was not the person he used to be. It used to be even better. I have trouble imagining it. When he spoke he would think so fast that his mouth had trouble keeping up and drool would fall all over the place as the physical aligned itself with the mental. I would come away from meetings exhausted. Trying to capture and recall the torrent that had been thrown at me.

One of Ken’s most endearing qualities — to me at least — was he was an insatiable gossip. For all his towering intellect, he was attracted to what many will consider to be the gutter. Someone once put out a set of baseball cards with economists on them. I told him I had secured an “Arrow.” Ken said that he initially thought it was a bit silly. Then the person promoting it showed him a sample and it had Gerard Debreu. Debreu was extremely straight laced so Ken told me if Gerard was doing it, he wasn’t going to miss out. Then he proceeded to tell me various sordid details about his co-author’s exploits. He didn’t seem so straight laced to me after that.

During the 1990s, Ken was glued to the Clinton scandals and testimony. Not the Whitewater stuff. The sex stuff. More recently, he was a huge fan on the Daily Show. Whenever we met, we would usually recount our favourite episodes of the last few months much to the amazing of some poor, unsuspecting graduate students sitting near us at the lunch table. I can only imagine what he thought of the current president. Alas, that is something that I won’t get to find out.

With all of his achievements, Ken was as down to earth as they come. He was humble but at the same time more than willing to talk about how he came up with ideas and did not pretend he was anything but the smartest person in the room. It is a combination that I am finding it hard to explain but it was true. Moreover, he would not shy away from telling people why they were off base and challenge anyone’s preconceived ideas. It was hard to be anything but intimidating but when you knew him, you never came away ever feeling belittled even if he had demonstrated you were clearly wrong. A rare set of gifts. I suspect we will never see the like of it again.

If he and I had talked about it, Ken would surely have wondered why I was writing this tribute to him on his passing right at this moment. Surely, he would have said, I should have had it ready to go for years. He was like that. A clear economic rationalist who saw the continual humour in it all. I will miss him greatly.

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