This week saw the passing of Kenneth Arrow, one of the giants of modern economics. Arrow was best known for his work on the general equilibrium theory, setting out the conditions under which the “invisible hand” of market competition among self-serving individuals serves society well. His fundamental ideas have been applied to the design of insurance products, financial products, employment contracts and much more. The full New York Times obituary can be read here.
His extraordinary knowledge, far exceeding the boundaries of economics, is illustrated by the following story:
Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit.
When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor.
Well, not so fast.
Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work.”