Posts Tagged ‘Elinor Ostrom’

the early life of Economics Nobelist Elinor Ostrom

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

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.

Elinor Ostrom profiled

Friday, September 16th, 2011

The current issue of Finance & Development, a quarterly publication of the IMF, profiles Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. She shared the prize with Berkeley economist Oliver E. Williamson.

I was surprised to learn that Ms Ostrom (née Awan) was able to excel academically, despite economic hardship and no support – material or otherwise – from her family. She succeeded because of ambition and hard work, but also because she had the good fortune to live in a school district with an excellent public high school and be able to study in a world-class university with affordable fees.

It is often said -tongue in cheek- that the best way to succeed in life is to choose good parents. Ostrom’s life shows that community (public) institutions can compensate for unsupportive parents.

Elinor Ostrom … was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1933. Growing up poor in the middle of the Depression, Ostrom lived with her divorced mother, who taught her to grow vegetables and can fruit from their trees to save money. Their home was on the edge of the Beverly Hills school district, so she was able to attend the swank Beverly Hills High School and receive a top-notch education. Showing an early disdain for materialism that persists today, Ostrom bought her clothes secondhand ….

Ostrom enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), against her mother’s wishes. No one else in the family had been to college—there seemed to be no point to it—and her mother refused to provide financial support. Undeterred, the young Elinor put herself through college, working a series of odd jobs. “At the time, UCLA had a very low fee, so I was able to avoid going into debt,” Ostrom remembers.

Despite graduating with honors in political science, Ostrom headed to Boston to work as a clerk for an electronics exporting company. ….

In 1957, Ostrom returned to UCLA, taking a mid-level post in the university’s personnel office while pursuing graduate studies in political science. Her mother remained mystified by her choices. “She asked what my salary would be after I got my Ph.D.—would it be more than I was currently earning? I said, no, it’d be the same or less. She just didn’t understand,” Ostrom recalls with a smile.

Maureen Burke, “The Master Artisan“, Finance & Development 48:3 (September 2011), pp. 2-5.

There is much more in the complete profile, which can be freely downloaded.

free Ostrom/Williamson downloads

Friday, November 27th, 2009

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded jointly to Elinor Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”,  and to Oliver E. Williamson “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm”.

Elsevier, the Dutch publisher of around 2,000 academic journals, is allowing open access to “the laureates’ key articles published with Elsevier”. Links are posted here.



more praise for Elinor Ostrom

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

When I started studying economics in graduate school, the standard operating procedure was to … assume a particular set of rules and technologies, as though they descended from the sky ….

A typical conclusion was that rules that assign property rights and rules that let people trade lead to good outcomes. … Why would they respect the property rights of someone else? We had no idea. ….

Elinor’s fieldwork, followed up by her experimental work, pointed us in exactly the right direction. ….

Economists … who think that they are doing deep theory but are really just assuming their conclusions, find it hard to even understand what it would mean to make the rules that humans follow the object of scientific inquiry. If we fail to explore rules in greater depth, economists will have little to say about the most pressing issues facing humans today – how to improve the quality of bad rules that cause needless waste, harm, and suffering.

Cheers to the Nobel committee for recognizing work on one of the deepest issues in economics. Bravo to the political scientist who showed that she was a better economist than the economic imperialists who can’t tell the difference between assuming and understanding.

Paul Romer, “Skyhooks versus Cranes: The Nobel Prize for Elinor Ostrom”, Charter Cities, 12 October 2009.

Stanford economist Paul Romer ‘invented’ endogenous growth theory.  He earned a BS in physics (1977) and a PhD in economics (1983), both from the University of Chicago, which makes his praise of Elinor Ostrom’s work all the more surprising, and more noble. This brief essay is outstanding, worth reading in its entirety. Highly recommended.

praise for Elinor Ostrom

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues in the International Association for the Study of Common Property have gotten a lot of mileage out of proving Garrett Hardin wrong. Hardin coined the phrase “Tragedy of the Commons” in a seminal 1968 Science article. Hardin’s brief article offered a clear and intuitively appealing account of why common property resources (CPRs) would not be managed sustainably at a local level. Ostrom and her colleagues showed that the Tragedy of the Commons was not inevitable and that a great number of different CPRs could be sustainably managed, sometimes for centuries…..

It turns out the problem with commons is not common ownership: it is open access.

Inger Weibust, reviewing The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptations, edited by Nives Dolsak and Elinor Ostrom (MIT Press, 2003) in Global Environmental Politics 4:4 (November 2004), pp. 161-163.

Recycled from the Thought du Jour archive.

Inger Wiebust is an assistant professor in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), Carleton University, Ottawa. She is author of Green Leviathan: The Case for a Federal Role in Environmental Policy (Ashgate, London, UK, 2009). Indiana University political scientist Elinor Ostrom yesterday shared the Nobel Prize in economics “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”.

Elinor Ostrom on human activity and deforestation

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Recent attempts to understand processes leading to general environmental harms involve multi-variable models. Ehrlich and Ehrlich (1991), for example, adopted Barry Commoner’s earlier (1972) three-variable causal model: I = P*A*T, where, I = impact on the environment, P = population, A = affluence …, and T = technologies employed. An alternative model developed by Grant (1994) for UNICEF … is the PPE spiral, where poverty and population pressures are viewed as reinforcing one another and jointly impinging on environmental conditions while all three factors – population, poverty, and environment – affect and are affected by political instability.

… [T]hese two models [have many differences.] First, they disagree on the sign of the relationship between poverty and environmental variables. …. [S]hould we expect poverty to adversely affect deforestation in developing countries [the UNICEF model] and affluence to affect deforestation in industrialized countries [the Commoner-Ehrlich model]? The Commoner-Ehrlich model includes population size …. The UNICEF model identifies population growth rather than current size. Technology appears in the Commoner-Ehrlich model, but not in the UNICEF model. Political instability appears in the UNICEF model, but not in the Commoner-Ehrlich model. … [W]hich model best describes the world [?]. If one accepts the Commoner-Ehrlich view, one should focus attention on the most affluent countries and ignore political instability. Accepting the UNICEF view, one would focus on the poorest countries and emphasize the impact of political instability.


[So much for theory. What does the empirical evidence show? Unfortunately, not much.] [A]nalyses of [the effects of] demographic, socioeconomic and institutional factors on deforestation … do not support the idea of human driving forces, whereby there are human mechanisms that operate everywhere the same way – similar to gravity or other physical forces.

Elinor Ostrom, “The International Forestry Resources and Institutions Research Program: A Methodology for Relating Human Incentives and Actions on Forest Cover and Biodiversity”, in F. Dallmeier & J.A. Comiskey (eds.), Forest Biodiversity in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean (UNESCO, Paris, 1998), pp. 2-3, 10.

After so much effort, we still know almost nothing about this important subject. Political scientist Elinor Ostrom is a leading … perhaps the leading … researcher in this field. Lesser researchers actually believe that they understand the relationship between human activity and deforestation, so torture the data until they confess.

Update: Elinor Ostrom today was awarded, along with Berkeley economist Oliver E. Williamson, this year’s Nobel Prize in economics, “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”.

recycled from the Thought du Jour archive.