Friday, November 20, 2009

Econometric Society Fellows: A Tale of Two Duncans

The Fellows of the Econometric Society are an elite group of economists, numbering less than 500, nominated and elected by their peers:
To be eligible for nomination as a Fellow, a person must have published original contributions to economic theory or to such statistical, mathematical, or accounting analyses as have a definite bearing on problems in economic theory... Candidates elected to Fellowship are those with a total number of check marks at least equal to 30 percent of the number of mail ballots submitted by Fellows. Over the past decade about 15 candidates per year have been elected as new Fellows.
Among the most recently elected fellows is 84 year old R. Duncan Luce, who by most accounts should have been elected decades ago. Jeff Ely (himself a newly elected fellow) explains why it took so long:
The problem is that there are many economists and its costly to investigate each one to see if they pass the bar. So you pick a shortlist of candidates who are contenders and you investigate those.  Some pass, some don’t.  Now, the next problem is that there are many fellows and many non-fellows and its hard to keep track of exactly who is in and who is out.  And again it’s costly to go and check every vita to find out who has not been admitted yet.
So when you pick your shortlist, you are including only economists who you think are not already fellows.  Someone like Duncan Luce, who certainly should have been elected 30 years ago most likely was elected 30 years ago so you would never consider putting him on your shortlist.
Indeed, the simple rule of thumb you would use is to focus on young people for your shortlist.  Younger economists are more likely to be both good enough and not already fellows.
This makes sense. But the proliferation of blogs makes the costs of identifying individuals who have been unfairly overlooked much lower, because the task can be decentralized. Anyone anywhere in the world can make a case and hope that some existing fellows take notice.
In this spirit, let me make a case for Duncan Foley. While still a graduate student in the 1960's, Foley introduced what is now a standard concept of fairness into general equilibrium theory. Here's what Andrew Postlewaite wrote in 1988 about this innovation:
Nearly 20 years ago Duncan Foley introduced a notion of fairness which was completely consistent with standard economic models. This notion was that of envy, or more precisely, lack of envy. An economic outcome was said to be envy-free if no one preferred another's final bundle of goods and services to his or her own bundle. The concept is both compelling and easily accommodated in standard economic models. It is attractive on several grounds. First, it is ordinal - it does not depend upon the particular utility function representing one's preferences, and thus avoids all the problems associated with interpersonal comparison of utilities. Second, the concept relies on precisely the same economic data necessary to determine the efficiency or nonefficiency of the outcomes associated with a particular policy. After Foley introduced this concept into modern economics a number of economists, including Pazner, Schmeidler, Varian, Vind, and Yaari, analyzed and extended the concept.
It is now more than 40 years since Foley developed these ideas. For the concept of envy-free allocations alone he deserves to be elected, but this is just one of several notable contributions. His papers on the core of an economy with public goods (Econometrica 1970), equilibrium with costly marketing (Journal of Economic Theory 1970), portfolio choice and growth (American Economic Review 1970), asset management with trading uncertainty (Review of Economic Studies 1975), and asset equilibrium in macroeconomic models (Journal of Political Economy 1975) all continue to be widely cited. He has made influential contributions to Marxian economics (Journal of Economic Theory 1982) and used ideas from classical thermodynamics to understand price dispersion (Journal of Economic Theory 1994). And he has written several books, including a pioneering effort in 1971 with Miguel Sidrauski on monetary and fiscal policy in a growing economy.

It is my hope that someday soon he will be nominated and elected a new fellow of the Econometric Society, an honor he so richly deserves.

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