Virulent Word of Mouse

October 19, 2009

Oliver Williamson, a gentleman.

Filed under: Amusing diversions,biography,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 11:41 am

The celebration was spontaneous. I walked upstairs to tell my wife I was leaving for work. She was listening to a news radio station, as she does every morning. She told me the Nobel Prize in Economics had been announced. Oliver Williamson had won. Both my hands went in the air and I jumped. It is corny to admit, but I shouted “Yeh!”

There is an old cliché’ about someone being a scholar and a gentleman. While plenty has been said about Oliver Williamson as a scholar, I wish to focus on his character. Sure, his ideas have influenced an entire generation of professional conversations – that is why he won the prize. But that is not why I jumped for joy. I jumped because Williamson has something else – an inspiring touch and an influential approach to intellectual life. I have been fortunate enough – privileged enough – to observe this touch first hand. That has been significant in my professional life.

I do not know how else to make these points other than to share a few personal observations about Williamson. So that is what I will do in this post. Perhaps it will provide a deeper insight into the man.

oewFirst, some background. In case you missed the news, Oliver Williamson was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. Here is one news report from the NYT. Here is a compilation. In case you do know anything about Williamson’s research, here is one summary from Wikipedia. Here is another summary from Lynne Kieling. Here is another from the marginal revolution. Here is one from Brad DeLong. There are many more if you look for them. He is a great scholar, very deserving, and I have nothing additional to add to all the intellectual praise.

Reading all this stuff for a week did inspire this post. I did not see anybody say something that ought to be said. Williamson is a wonderful human being, and mentor to large numbers of students. Many people have had this experience, including me. My experience differs a bit from others. He was a mentor to me even though I was not his student, even though he had no obligation to help. He was a gentleman, and it went with the scholar.

Look, this will be a trip down memory lane. And there is no need for any hankies. I am going to tell a few personal stories that illuminate Williamson’s character.

First story. The first paper I ever published was in the Journal of Law Economics and Organization, the journal Williamson founded. He edited it until the 1990s. Luis Cabral and I wrote the paper over a couple days while we were students. The paper arose out of a late night conversation. It was a little insight, a little model, and a little critique of a GAO report. It just came together very quickly. We were naïve, and not knowing any better, we wrote the paper, and sent it out for review. The reviews were positive and Williamson accepted the paper after one revision. To be clear, I have not had another experience like that in the next twenty years of professional life, but to have such an experience at a young age was formative. Both Luis and I walked away from the experience with a delusional sense of self-confidence (which lasted about 48 hours for me, until I returned to my thesis. I cannot speak for Luis, but he has had his feet on the ground for some time…). Only with many years of perspective, after being an editor myself, have I come to realize that Williamson took a risk on a couple of unknown grad students. But that is vintage Williamson: He reads work and trusts his own judgment and it does not matter who the writers are. Let me say it this way: In academics, as elsewhere in life, so many leading scholars make snap judgments, trust only friends, arrogantly dismiss young scholars who do not talk the right talk, or who come from the wrong background. Williamson does not operate that way. He is open, curious, and willing to talk with anyone. It is a model for how to approach so many professional tasks. I was lucky to be a beneficiary.

Second story. Two years later I was an Assistant Professor and I fulfilled a promise to one of my thesis advisors, Roger Noll. I promised that I would write a paper that was not solely a statistical modeling exercise. My thesis had been about a very special topic, computer procurement in the Federal Government. I promised I would write about what I had learned about how computer procurement actually worked, identifying the key institutional determinants — which is a topic of more general interest… It took me a while, but I wrote such a paper in my first year as an assistant professor. I did the best I could, even though I really had no complete mental model of how to write such a paper. Having completed the best first draft I could write, and having no idea what to do next, I sent it to the Williamson at the Journal of Law Economics and Organization — because of the prior positive experience.  To make a long story short, as I recall it, Williamson got one review, and the reviewer shrugged. Only in retrospect do I realize that Williamson’s next actions were beyond the call. He could have easily rejected the paper, but he did not. He read it and thought about and gave me advise. Williamson sent me a letter about how to revise the presentation of the core idea. Eighteen years later I can still recall the two pieces of advice. First, drawing on wisdom I did not understand at the time, he explained how to write a paper like the one I was aspiring to write. For the first time in my professional life, he explained how two pages of words could distill the essence of a model better than ten pages of algebra, and why that would work in the context of some research goals. That might not sound like much, but it was a revelation to me, and some sparks went on in my head. Second, he gave me an example of what he wanted. Indeed, he pointed to his own paper on Cable Television, which I still think is one of the greatest story-based economic papers ever written. In all my years I have met only two editors who took the same amount of time to read that deeply, draw on such wisdom, and provide key insights (in case you were curious, the other editors are Tim Bresnahan and Larry White). Look, this is what I am trying to say: So many leading editors make snap judgments, and do not take the time to make a difference in the lives of junior authors. Williamson does not operate that way, and it is a model for how to be an editor. Once again, I was fortunate to be a beneficiary.

Third story. In 1994-95 I had the opportunity to take a junior Sabbatical splitting time between Stanford and Berkeley. The Berkeley side was at the Haas School of Business, where Williamson was faculty. For six months I lived in Palo Alto and for six months I lived in Berkeley. I made an effort to attend Williamson’s workshop every week, even when I lived in Palo Alto. Going to see Williamson was not the only reason to attend that workshop, nor was it my primary reason at the outset, but I recall it taking on importance over time. As I look back on that now, many years later, I do not remember learning any specific lesson in particular. I just remember listening to Williamson and learning about his style. That has stayed with me. Williamson was classy. He would listen sympathetically. He never lost his patience. He picked his spots to make remarks. And the remarks would gently nudge the speaker to redirect attention to the key factors at work in the paper the scholar was trying to write, to leave aside the secondary issues and digressions. Gems would come out of Williamson’s mouth. The wisdom came out over and over. Let me put it this way: What he had done for my paper he regularly did for others. After seeing that over and over I began to see  it. I associate one aphorism with Williamson, and the aphorism is this: Just write about what is there. Maybe that does not make sense, so let me add one more story to it….

Last story. Finding one’s voice is one of the most confusing aspects of a young scholar’s life. It is especially confusing because it is so easy to get distracted by less important matters. Let me put it this way: For better or worse, my issues with finding a voice differed from others.  I love mathematical models and abstraction and generality as much as the next economist, but at some point I tired of learning about them for their own sake. The muse in me had to have its day, and it oriented me towards explaining phenomenon and, for lack of a better label, towards explaining the reality understood by most people.  Those instincts drew me to stories, such as those found in Adam Smith, and, more generally, it drew me to other writers who speak in the language of stories and focus on generalizing from examples. Truth be told, it leaves me impatient with the vast majority of academic writing, which is oriented towards building models as an end in itself, for its own sake, or which abstracts without a phenomenon as guide to what is relevant. More to the point, as a young scholar I did not know whether to, or how to, trust my instincts. I was out of step with the game theory fad that most of my colleagues in industrial economics found fascinating. If I did not follow the standard model, then what would I do? Look, before this sounds too much like a coming of age problem, recall that being an assistant professor who is out of step with colleagues is far more pressure-filled than coming of age as a teenager. The wrong decision leads to the denial of tenure. So, to make a long story short, Williamson showed up during that time. There he was, telling me to trust my own instincts, to just write about what is there, and ignore the distractions.

All my stories about Williamson refer to events that occurred more than a decade ago. That is largely because I have not seen much of Williamson since then. I have interacted twice with him since then, but neither of these events leads to a story with a happy ending. Here is a synopsis. I had an opportunity to be Williamson’s colleague a number of years ago, a little bit after that junior sabbatical. It did not work out, and it is a long story that is not worth retelling in public. I bring it up for a reason. As a matter of principle and personality I rarely look back, and while I love my present job, I confess that on some days I have wondered what it would have been like to regularly hang out next to Williamson. One of my few professional regrets is that I never got to find out. The second story without a happy ending connects to the first one. A few years later I had dinner with Williamson after a seminar at Berkeley. It was after one of the worse seminars I have ever given in my professional life. It is awful giving a bad seminar, but it is particularly painful to do that in front of someone you respect. Because of my bad performance I became tongue-tied that evening, and I could not bring myself to speak frankly to him, so I did not tell him that I regretted not working things out, which I had planned to say. It was the last time I had dinner with him, and so it has never been said. I hope I get the opportunity some day, though, judging by the way things have gone this last decade, I might not.

It does not make it any better to write any of that now, and I am not sure why these recollections had to end this way. Sometimes life does not have to make sense as narrative. What is there is what is there. Williamson gave me a bit of courage to see what is there, whether it is wonderful or unsatisfying.

All in all, it was with great sincerity that I jumped for joy when I heard Williamson won.


  1. Shane, great blog! And your post resonnates with my own experience as well. Oliver is a Mensch.

    Comment by Pierre Azoulay — October 21, 2009 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  2. Touching story….

    Comment by Oliver Williamson Jr. — April 19, 2010 @ 1:11 am | Reply

    • I am pleased you liked it.

      Shane ________________________________________

      Comment by Shane Greenstein — April 19, 2010 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  3. Very inspirational stories,I liked it, it’s illuminate Williamson’s character.

    Comment by Mychael Margott — May 5, 2011 @ 1:58 am | Reply

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