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Kenneth Arrow, 1921-2017: Nobel Prize Winner & CASBS Fellow

Kenneth Arrow
Mar 7 2017

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Kenneth Arrow, the Nobel laureate, Stanford economics professor emeritus, and titan among 20th century thinkers and theorists, passed away on February 21, 2016. He was 95.

Arrow earned the Nobel Prize in 1972 at the age of 51 – to this day the youngest of any Nobel recipient – for “pioneering contributions to general economic equilibrium theory and welfare theory” that have become standards of modern neoclassical economics. His doctoral dissertation, published in 1951 as Social Choice and Individual Value, is a pillar of what became known as social choice theory. In March 2016, Stanford University’s Center for Ethics in Society held an event honoring the 65th anniversary of that book.

Arrow went on to undertake foundational work in areas such as endogenous growth theory and the economics of information, with applications to domains such as welfare, insurance, healthcare, and racial discrimination that exerted staggering impact – in disparate disciplines such as political science, philosophy, and statistics – and remain relevant today.

Among many other honors, Arrow was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor, in 2004 by President George W. Bush.

Read much more about the life and work of Kenneth Arrow in obituaries by, among others, The New York TimesThe Washington Post,The Los Angeles Times, and Bloomberg.

Arrow and CASBS

Arrow was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) in 1956-57, the Center’s third year of existence. He was among a class of luminaries that included philosopher Karl Popper, political scientists Karl Deutch and Alexander George, and sociologist Harold Wilensky, among others. During his CASBS year, Arrow was particularly interested in exploring “interrelations of psychology and economics” and “actual and rational behavior under uncertainty.”

View a March 1955 letter to CASBS director Ralph Tyler in which Ken Arrow confirms his plans to join CASBS during the 1956-57 year, and an October 1955 letter in which he outlines his anticipated research interests during his fellowship year.

Internal documents circulated among CASBS leadership during Arrow’s fellowship year reveal that he was “making such an important contribution in the various seminars and in advising and he gets so much satisfaction from it that there should be some way of continuing that contribution…” There was even discussion of making Arrow an “honorary Fellow” that would “let him come and go freely” with the “opportunity to study here at the Center and to meet with such seminars as he may be interested in participating in.”

View a November 1972 letter to CASBS director Meredith Wilson in which Ken Arrow acknowledges congratulations on having won the Nobel Prize.

Such a formal arrangement never came to pass, but Arrow maintained warm relations with the Center over the decades, occasionally attending research meetings and public events (Arrow spent much of his career at Stanford), including a symposium in early 2016. Over the years his affinity for CASBS also was illustrated in correspondences with various Center directors, in which he sometimes suggested ideas for potential research programs and suggested scholars as potential future fellows.

"Ken Arrow was a Mensch,” said CASBS director Margaret Levi. “Not only was he a great scholar and mentor, he was a remarkably decent and engaged man committed to improving our society. He enhanced our understanding of the underlying logic of both economics and politics. As importantly, he exemplified what it means to be an ethical intellectual."

Arrow's final visit to CASBS occurred on December 6, 2016. He enjoyed lunch on the hill with director Margaret Levi and fellows James Woodward and Teppei Yamamoto, then met with a larger group of fellows and staff in the Center’s main meeting room for a Q&A session.

The crowd didn’t need reminding that they were sharing a special slice of time and space with a legend.

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We asked two CASBS fellows to share their thoughts about Ken Arrow and his December visit to CASBS. The comments are emblematic of Arrow’s interdisciplinary appeal and intergenerational influence.

Fellow Donald Chi, a public health specialist focused on understanding the behavioral and social determinants of dental outcomes in disadvantaged children, prepared for the moment.

I re-read Ken Arrow’s seminal 1963 article on medical care markets. I first had read it in 2006 as a grad student, with no idea at the time that this parsimonious, elegant paper was the intellectual foundation for the entire field we know as health economics. What struck me was the continued relevance of his work – more than 50 years after the paper was first published.

I met Ken during his CASBS visit and Margaret [Levi] later helped me reach out to him by email. Within minutes of sending, Ken replied to my email as only a gentleman scholar would by politely referring to me as ‘Professor Chi.’ We exchanged greetings and agreed to meet in person. Though the follow-up meeting never occurred, Ken’s work will continue to have a profound influence on the way I think about non-market institutions and the role these institutions have in moving us closer to health equity.

Fellow James Woodward is a distinguished philosopher of science and social science attempting to integrate his body of work on causation and causal reasoning with recent research in the empirical psychology of causal cognition.

My first “encounter” with Kenneth Arrow occurred in graduate school in the 1970s when I read his Social Choice and Individual Values – I had to do this on my own since I was in a philosophy department and none of my professors was interested in (or capable of reading) a book on social choice theory. To say I was impressed by the book would be like saying I was impressed byKing LearI thought it was a magnificent achievement. Its relevance to political philosophy was then, as now, underappreciated. In the years after I read a number of Arrow papers, some appearing in philosophy journals (including a very interesting paper on Rawls’s Theory of Justice) and others classics in economics, including his extraordinarily fertile paper on the economics of medical care, with its far-seeing emphasis on the importance of informational asymmetries. The range of Arrow’s interests and intellectual sympathies was truly extraordinary.

It was therefore a great pleasure to finally meet Arrow in person and have lunch with him at the Center. He was just as charming and lucid as I expected. He asked me what I was working on, and I tried to sketch in a few sentences some of my ideas about causation. Getting straight to the heart of the matter, he then asked me, “Is there anything more to causation than invariance?” This question pleased me a great deal, since the connection with invariance is central to my approach. After lunch he met with all of the fellows and responded to their questions for the better part of an hour. Getting a sense, in person, of how he thought about a range of social and economic issues was a great privilege.

Written by Mike Gaetani