Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What is your vision for the future?

Last night, I learned the sad news that Ronald Coase died at age 102.  In his career, Coase fundamentally changed the way economists think about firm and market transactions, externalities, law and economics, and even, durable goods.  The study of economics is much richer and more full of life because of Coase's fundamental contributions to the field.  The economics profession owes Coase a great debt of gratitude.

I could write a detailed narrative on how each of Coase's contributions have permeated the field, but I am sure that others will take on this task.  My comparative advantage lies elsewhere.  Instead, I want to share a story about the only time I met Coase at a Ronald Coase Institute roundtable this spring in Chicago.

I was invited to this roundtable because I participated in in the 2008 Ronald Coase Institute (RCI) Workshop in Los Banos in the Philippines.  The RCI workshops are a part of Coase's desire to support academic research by young scholars on developing economies.  These workshops are an important part of Coase's legacy.  The people at the Ronald Coase Institute (Lee and Alexandra Benham, and Mary Shirley, in particular) work tirelessly to promote research on new institutional economics.

I saw the Chicago roundtable as a great opportunity to visit with the RCI folks I met in the Philippines, as well as meet other people who are part of the Coase Institute network.  As such, I signed up without any expectations. Although the event had Coase in its title, I had no idea that Ronald Coase would be there.  He wasn't slated to speak, and the thought that he might actually attend never crossed my mind.

To my surprise and delight, Coase showed up halfway through the roundtable.  I was not the only one who was surprised.  Coase's arrival caused a small commotion that actually led to a slight pause in the program (because the speaker was as astonished as I was) while he got settled in.

After the roundtable discussion and before dinner, Lee Benham took the opportunity to introduce me to Coase.  At age 102, Coase was hard of hearing and in a wheelchair, so people who spoke with him had to kneel next to him and speak up.  This humbling way to meet Coase only magnified the significance of the moment.  What do you say to a man who revolutionized economics and helped establish the field that you so humbly try to advance?  Before I said much, I was whisked away.  Coase was the man of the hour, and lots of people wanted to talk with him.  Lee Benham took a picture.

After meeting Coase, I went back to filling my plate for dinner, and looking for a place to sit.  I figured that the excitement of meeting Coase before dinner would be the highlight of the evening, but it was not.  Just as I began looking for a table to sit, Lee Benham pulled me aside and told me that I would be dining with Coase. This distinct honor was not phrased as a question ("Would you like to dine with Coase?"), but as a command ("You will be dining with Coase").

Again, what do you say to Coase when you are thrust into dinner conversation with him?  Compounding the natural anxiety of what to discuss, conversation was difficult because he was hard of hearing.  Nevertheless, we eventually had a nice conversation about support from our families of research (Coase's family never really understood what he was doing) and a little about my research on institutions.  Then, Coase asked me, "What is your vision for the future?"

The question floored me.  Most people who are at the sunset of their lives are almost too excited to share all of the experience that they've had, yet Coase wanted to know how the next 102 years would turn out (and what I thought about it).

Back to the question, I expressed optimism that we would meet the challenges of our world, and that 20 to 50 to 100 years from now, the world would be a better place due to the accumulated wisdom of creative minds.  Then, I concluded, "but I'm young enough to be optimistic."  Coase replied, "I'm old enough to be optimistic."  More than just reassuring me, you could see it in his eyes that he really took an optimistic view on the future.

Now, with Coase gone, we are left with his legacy, and we are blessed to have his vision for the future.  Although Coase will be missed, the world has been greatly enriched by his life and work.


  1. Tony, this is a really touching eulogy.

    I am sorry I never got the chance to meet him in person like you did. I will have to continue to know him through the writings he's left behind.

  2. Great picture. Stephen


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