In Memoriam: Norman Geras

I was shocked and saddened yesterday to discover that Norman Geras has passed away. He was taken from us at too young an age, and he was one of the best that the blogosphere had to offer; clear-headed, very intelligent, exceedingly well-informed, and very good-natured and good-humored. The wealth of tributes that he received in both life and death speak well to his character and goodness, and to the positive impact that he made in the lives of those privileged to have known him.

Here is James Joyner's remembrance. Nick Cohen has penned one as well. Here is an online festschrift, whose encomiums for Norm are apt and well-deserved. His blog will remain online as a memorial.

Those familiar with Norm's blog will know of the profiles that he wrote of various bloggers. I sent him an e-mail a couple of years ago seeking to guilt-trip him into posting a profile of me. I doubt that I made him feel guilty in the slightest for not having done so previously, but being the delightful soul that he was, he kindly indulged my nagging. I remember having found his questions very interesting, and very enjoyable to answer. I wish that I could continue the conversation with him.

Requiescat in pace.

In Memoriam: Ronald H. Coase

The great man lived for over a century, but as is the case with the passing of other great and productive minds, one feels as though the world did not have him for nearly as long as he was needed. Here is the University of Chicago Law School remembrance, which helps sum up his extraordinary legacy:

Coase, the Clifton R. Musser Professor Emeritus of Economics, is best known for his 1937 paper, “The Nature of the Firm,” which offered groundbreaking insights about why firms exist and established the field of transaction cost economics, and “The Problem of Social Cost,” published in 1960, which is widely considered to be the seminal work in the field of law and economics. The latter set out what is now known as the Coase Theorem, which holds that under conditions of perfect competition, private and social costs are equal.

“That Ronald Coase is among the most influential and best-cited economists in the past 50 years is not debatable,” said Law School Professor Emeritus William M. Landes and Sonia Lahr-Pastor, JD '13, in “Measuring Coase’s Influence.” They presented the paper at a 2009 conference titled “Markets, Firms and Property Rights: A Celebration of the Research of Ronald Coase.”

“Among the highest aspirations of the University of Chicago is the drive to create new fields of study that change our world for the better,” said University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “Ronald Coase embodied that ideal. His groundbreaking scholarship made impacts on law and policy that people around the globe continue to feel today. As a scholar, a colleague and a mentor, his historic contributions enriched our intellectual community and the world at large.”

“Ronald Coase achieved what most academics can only dream of – immortality,” said Michael H. Schill, dean of the University of Chicago Law School. “His scholarship fundamentally changed the way lawyers approach issues of when and how government should intervene in the economy, and when and how private contracts should govern. His work could not be more relevant to many of the debates we are enmeshed in today.

“Our great law school has contributed much to the world of law and jurisprudence,” Schill said. “Ronald’s contributions were among the most important.”

His intellectual impact continued late into his life, when at the age of 101, he published his final book, How China Became Capitalist, co-authored with former student Ning Wang, PhD’02.

Read the whole thing. Here as well is the New York Times obituary. My favorite passages from the piece:

In his autobiographical essay written for the Nobel committee after being awarded the prize, he recalled being taken by his father at age 11 to a phrenologist to hear what could be discovered from the shape of his head. The phrenologist detected “considerable mental vigor,” Professor Coase wrote, and recommended that he work in banking or accounting and raise poultry as a hobby.

[. . .]

While teaching at the University of Virginia, Professor Coase submitted “The Problem of Social Cost” to The Journal of Law and Economics, a new periodical at the University of Chicago. The astonished faculty there wondered, according to one of their number, George Stigler, “how so fine an economist could make such an obvious mistake.” They invited Professor Coase to dine at the home of Aaron Director, the founder of the journal, and explain his views to a group that included Milton Friedman and several other Nobel laureates-to-be.

“In the course of two hours of argument, the vote went from 20 against and one for Coase, to 21 for Coase,” Professor Stigler wrote later. “What an exhilarating event! I lamented afterward that we had not had the clairvoyance to tape it.”

Jonathan Adler writes that "[m]ost of us [academics] would be lucky were our entire body of work to have the impact of just one of his articles." Ilya Somin also has some appropriate thoughts for the occasion:

One of my personal favorite Coase articles is “The Lighthouse in Economics,” where Coase shows that private entrepreneurs successfully established and operated an enterprise that most economists believed was the classic example of a public good that could only be provided by government. This doesn’t prove that the private sector can provide all public goods (nor did Coase claim that it can); but it does show that we should be more careful than we usually are in asserting that a given good can only be provided by the state just because it is public in nature. Before Coase, most scholars and public policy experts had simply assumed that the private sector was incapable of providing lighthouses without much investigation of the issue.

Richard Epstein, who was a longtime colleague of Coase's, also adds his thoughts:

Why was Ronald so great? The answer is not because he was smart. In fact, I suspect that by the usual measures of intelligence Ronald would not do well against the types who excel in proving mathematical theorems or solving crossword puzzles. No, Ronald was not "smart."  But he wasbrilliant. He could look at the most mundane facts of ordinary life and distill from them insights about how the world worked -- and, indeed, had to work

To make the point more generally, the idea that social interactions took place in a frictional universe was not first discovered by Ronald. The point was in the background of virtually every discussion of the operation of the legal system from the beginning of legal history. But lawyers, in particular, are creatures of doctrine, and their first intuition was to look for elegant points of law over which to argue in the manner of great appellate lawyers and to ignore the inconspicuous substrate on which the entire system rested.

To put it otherwise, what he did was make friction the main event in all cases, not just a sideshow. He did it first when, in The Nature of the Firm, he asked the simple question of why individuals sometimes form firms to organize their business and on other occasions resort to the price system to exchange goods. No one before Ronald has put the point exactly in that way, and yet, once the question was made, his simple answer—namely, that it is costly to form a price system and costly to form a firm—started a huge rush of productive scholarship. No longer does one think of business entities as suspended in space. It is not possible to ask when the transaction costs are higher in the one direction than in the other, so that there is a kind of balance that explains why both types of arrangements are so commonplace.

From there, it turns out that the study of partnerships, corporations, lending agreements, joint ventures, and a host of other arrangements are all amenable to the transaction costs analysis. At each stage in the analysis, we are always sure that there has to be something more to the overall system. But in each case, supposed side constraints fit very well within the simple model that Ronald developed by asking the right question and then looking hard at the everyday facts of the world to see how it operates. 

What is obvious now was not obvious then, which is why Coase is not just a distinguished person, but the champion of a worldview—the Coasean worldview—which will rank up there, when all is said and done, with the Hobbesian, Lockean, and Humean views of human nature -- and not just because he shares with them the inestimable advantage of a one-syllable name.

Some wise words from Coase, courtesy of Geoffrey Manne. Coase's skepticism of regulation is worth keeping in mind, especially given the plethora of regulation-happy politicians and online pundits. I will close this post by noting Peter Klein's comment on how Coase constructed his extraordinary oeuvre "despite — or because of? — not holding a PhD in economics, not doing any math or statistics, and not, for much of his career, working in an economics department."

Requiescat in pace.

In Memoriam: Boruch Spiegel

Would that we had more like him:

Boruch Spiegel, one of the last surviving fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, in which a vastly outgunned band of 750 young Jews held off German soldiers for more than a month with crude arms and firebombs, died on May 9 in Montreal. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son, Julius, a retired parks commissioner of Brooklyn. Mr. Spiegel lived in Montreal.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising has been regarded as the signal episode of resistance to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calls it the first armed urban rebellion in German-occupied Europe.

As a young man, Mr. Spiegel was active in the leftist Jewish Labor Bund, and when it became clear that the Germans were not just deporting Jews but systematically killing them in death camps like Treblinka, the Bundists joined with other left-wing groups to form the Jewish Combat Organization, known by its Polish acronym ZOB.

In January 1943, when German soldiers entered the ghetto for another deportation — 300,000 Jews had already been sent to Treblinka or otherwise murdered in the summer of 1942 — ZOB fighters fought back for three days and killed or wounded several dozen Germans, seized weapons and forced the stunned Germans to retreat.

“We didn’t have enough weapons; we didn’t have enough bullets,” Mr. Spiegel 
once told an interviewer. “It was like fighting a well-equipped army with firecrackers.”

In the early morning of April 19, the eve of 
Passover, a German force equipped with tanks and artillery tried again, surrounding the ghetto walls. Mr. Spiegel was on guard duty and, according to his son-in-law, Eugene Orenstein, a retired professor of Jewish history at McGill University, gave the signal to launch the uprising.

The scattered ZOB fighters, joined by a right-wing Zionist counterpart, peppered the Germans from attics and underground bunkers, sending them into retreat once more. Changing tactics, the Germans began using flamethrowers to burn down the ghetto house by house and smoke out those in hiding. On May 8, ZOB’s headquarters, at 18 Mila Street, was destroyed. The group’s commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, is believed to have taken his own life, but scattered resistance continued for several more weeks in what was now rubble.

By then, Mr. Spiegel and 60 or so other fighters had spirited their way out of the ghetto through sewers. One was 
Chaike Belchatowska, whom he would marry. They joined up with Polish partisans in a forest.

“He was very modest, a reluctant hero,” his son said. “He was given an opportunity, and he took it. I don’t think he was braver or more resourceful than anyone else.”

Oh, but he was plenty brave. The righteous do not always have material advantages over their enemies. But they have courage and goodness in abundance and for that alone, they will be remembered kindly by history.

And of course, the memory of the righteous is a blessing. Requiescat in pace.