Remembering Ronald Coase
It was my pleasure and privilege to know Ronald Coase for over three decades as a remarkable scholar and a remarkable friend.
The loss is hard to encompass. While he lived, there was a special happiness in knowing that his mind was here, available to puzzle over and make sense of matters beyond the grasp of most of us. We knew that if he turned to explore some new question, then surprising discoveries would emerge. We are left to our own devices now. Sunlight seems a bit scarcer just now.
Over the years, I came to know varied elements of his long and fascinating life. I'd like to recount a few of them that illustrate tangibly some aspects of his mind and character. I'll take one comment of his to use as a framework.
This comment. Coase observed, "Any subject is interesting if looked at carefully and in sufficient depth."
I'll start with the first part of this: Any subject is interesting.
It came as a shock when Ronald Coase told us that the issues he examined were completely by accident.One example of many. He began his study of broadcasting because he was assigned to teach public utilities at the London School of Economics. So he began studying the post office and broadcasting, which led him eventually to his paper on the Federal Communications Commission, and further to The Problem of Social Cost, among the most widely cited papers in the social sciences. From an accidental beginning, what a remarkable outcome.
Another charming example. Back in 1938, to generate more housekeeping money, he agreed to write a series of 12 articles on accounting for a London newspaper. Each week, the night before the article was due he worked far into the night writing. The next morning he would fall asleep and his wife Marian would deliver the manuscript to the newspaper. Even written in those circumstances, Coase's newspaper articles developed important new ideas in accounting – ideas that were honored at a major conference half a century later.
Coase's statement continues: Any subject is interesting if looked at carefully.
Coase was consummate in the care and seriousness with which he looked at subjects. I once asked him. “What was the most important idea you encountered during your undergraduate study? “ He replied: “We were taught at university by the eminent statistician Sir Arthur Lyon Bowley: ‘When you see a number in a table, ask yourself, what had to take place for that number to be entered in that column?’" And Coase did so.
He was meticulous about obtaining and looking at evidence. To refute a statement that Keynes made about Alfred Marshall’s early life, Coase tracked down Marshall’s birth certificate from 1842 and also personally examined the original census sheets from 1871, 1881, and 1891, studying each report, the handwriting on the page, and the list of who was living in the household at the time, to infer the sources of the varying accounts of Marshall’s birthplace.
Thomas Carlyle famously said, “Genius means transcendent capacity of taking trouble….” And Coase exemplified that.
As editor of The Journal of Law and Economics, Coase personally attended to every dimension of quality, with amazing care. He actively sought out promising research for the journal and encouraged the authors. He handled all the editorial tasks himself, without delegation to assistants. And a final touch: for each issue, just before Coase took the completed manuscripts to the publisher, he himself carried them over to the university library. There he personally checked every citation in every manuscript against the original sources. (Last summer he recalled that 40 years ago he had had one manuscript in economics with every reference correct: a paper Lee and I did. We were thrilled.)
The concluding part of Coase’s comment says, Any subject is interesting if looked at carefully and in sufficient depth.
As a young child, Coase had a chess set, but no one to play with. So he played chess against himself, moving from side to side around the table, doing his best for each side. He later mused that this taught him to consider two different perspectives independently.
He taught himself to think deeply about the implications of things, logical or statistical. He often asked questions like, What’s a unit? How many products are there? He habitually considered, How do the numbers fit together?
During World War II he served as Chief Statistician in the Central Statistical Office of the UK. He quickly perceived the implications of policy changes, the impact of proposed regulations, and the sometimes terrible inconsistencies among quantities of objects being moved across domains: men and materiel to the various fronts, or imports by ocean shipping.
This past summer Lee and I visited him in his home. He was in his living room reading. At the age of 102, what was he reading? The two journals Science and Nature.
He wanted to understand how natural scientists go about drawing their conclusions.
Coase spoke and wrote the way poets and mathematicians – the best of them – do: in a few words capturing a realm of ideas, or turning something on its head.
His wit was disarming.
As keynote speaker, he told an audience with a smile: “After that introduction you’ll all be disappointed in me, but a person making an introduction is not under oath." On detective novels: "I like crimes to be solved because of the cleverness of the police, not because of the stupidity of the criminals."
He was modest.
In a speech to ISNIE, he said, “We do not know, for the most part, what is true or what is false, what is significant and what is not, nor the character of the interrelations of various parts of the institutional structure of the economy. It is our aim to find out.”
The quality Coase most valued in a person – he told us –
And he was kind.
As a young scholar, he discovered a significant error in a new book by a famous economist. His friends urged him to write up the discovery immediately and publish it - to make his name. But Coase thought the right thing to do was to write to the author instead, and let the author correct that error in the next edition. And that’s what Coase did.
Later in life he wanted to help new generations of students as he himself had been helped. During a cold week in Chicago in 2000, he met in a hotel room with a few of us to found a new organization that would work with young scholars worldwide. He allowed us to use his name for the new Institute, served as the research advisor, and even donated some of his Nobel prize funds to provide fellowships for young scholars.
Coase said recently that he had been lucky in his life. The center of that was his wife Marian. They met in 1932 when he was visiting Chicago, married a few years later, and were together throughout their lives until she passed away - 80 years later – in 2012.
Let me close with a vivid personal recollection from long ago.
Imagine a summer night in the south of France. Ronald and Marian were there, Lee and I with them. Dinner was in a restaurant in an ancient hilltop village, Roquebrune.
After midnight we finally began the long walk downhill, home. Fireflies and stars were shining, but no moon. We reached an ancient marble staircase leading down the steep hill.
Suddenly Ronald and Marian linked their arms through ours and led us, singing and dancing, down the stairs towards the sea, the two of them smiling their radiant incandescent smiles.
I think of their smiles now.
Happy trails to you, Ronald Coase.
Thanks for everything.
Presented at Xiamen University, December 11, 2013. Adapted from a speech given at the Memorials of Ronald Coase, Shenzhen, China, October 19, 2013. ©2013 Alexandra Benham