the early life of Economics Nobelist Elinor Ostrom

I learned a lot from this Saturday’s column of Tim Harford, the “Undercover Economist”. For starters, I learned that Lin Ostrom was born Elinor Awan in Los Angeles in 1933.

Lin was brought up in Depression-era poverty after her Jewish father left her Protestant mother. She was bullied at school – Beverly Hills High, of all places – because she was half-Jewish. She divorced her first husband, Charles Scott, after he discouraged her from pursuing an academic career, where she suffered discrimination for years. Initially steered away from mathematics at school, Lin was rejected by the economics programme at UCLA. She was only – finally – accepted on a PhD in political science after observing that UCLA’s political science department hadn’t admitted a woman for 40 years.

She persevered and secured her PhD after studying the management of fresh water in Los Angeles. ….

[It was in 1968,] when Lin saw [ecologist Garrett] Hardin lecture [on “The Tragedy of the Commons”] that she realised that she had been studying the tragedy of the commons all along. …. Garrett Hardin was 53, in the early stages of a career as a campaigning public intellectual that would last the rest of his life. Lin was 35, now Ostrom: she had married Vincent Ostrom, a respected political scientist closer to Hardin’s age, and together they had moved to Indiana University. Watching Hardin lecture galvanised her. But that wasn’t because she was convinced he was right. It was because she was convinced that he was wrong.

Tim Harford, “Do you believe in sharing?“, Financial Times, 31 August 2013.

The full column contains more facts that I was unaware of. I knew, of course, that Elinor Ostrom in 2009 became the first woman to win the Nobel memorial prize for economics, and that she died three years later, at the age of 78. What I did not know is that her much older husband, Vincent, died just two weeks later.

I can relate to Lin’s reaction to Garrett Hardin and his many followers, because flawed (“wrong”) publications on pensions keep me active in what would otherwise be a boring subject.


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