Encounter with Ronald Coase, the Accidental Economist

Renee L. Foster, MLA'05
Photo Credit: 
Jason Smith

  Achieving 102 years of age was merely a blip on Ronald Coase's personal timeline, which he made abundantly clear to us in 2012 when he ardently explained his next venture--the launch of a new journal in coming years. I had the opportunity to meet the Nobel laureate as part of a story the University of Chicago News Office was producing about the release of his book, How China Became Capitalist, co-authored with former student Ning Wang, PhD’02. I was left with a series of emotionally-wrought impressions of this centenarian, the father of transaction cost economics and most famously, his academic namesake, The Coase Theorem. For the interview, he was sharply dressed in a cobalt blue button-down shirt under a baby blue sweater vest and as he sat in his coordinated royal blue wheelchair, he humbly explained that he was really wasn't that special. Just lucky. Ah, Mr. Coase, I beg to differ. When I learned of his death at the age of 102 on Labor Day, I couldn't help but feel deeply torn about the news. Here's why:

  • Quite simply, Ronald H. Coase wasn't finished (at least he didn't think so). With much enthusiasm (even for a man in his 100's), Coase described the next journal he was planning to found because, apparently, the nearly twenty years he spent as editor of the seminal Journal of Law and Economics wasn't influential enough. This isn't how he felt about it--he was just wholeheartedly eager to cultivate and curate more scholarship. How could I not feel of pang of regret that his ambition would not be realized?
  • As self-conscious as we can be about the plight of age in today's youth-centric society, Ronald Coase taught a valuable lesson about grace, humilty, and acceptance, during our time with him. My colleague, Sarah Galer, now Director of Communications for the Harris School of Public Policy, was the primary interviewer and writer of the subsequent article that profiled the new book. We were both inspired by his intellectual vitality but also touched by a profound sense of physical fragility. That said, there was no room for pity. Even undemonstrated, it would have been insulting.
  • His blue eyes still shone with the glimmer of curiosity. He embodied the fervor of everything The University of Chicago is--an ever unsatiated hunger for knowledge, a sprit of challenge, and an appreciation for fluid boundaries among disciplines. (Plus, I can't help but think that even at his age, he knew he looked best in blue, which made his eyes dance all the more.)
  • As a gift to my soon-to-be husband (who will be completing his Ph.D. in economics soon) I asked Coase to sign a copy of a book of his publications. He was happy to oblige. I, on the other hand, felt truly guilty at the request. His effort was labored and I nearly told him to forget about it. In retrospect, I am glad I didn't. Even a man of his accomplishment needs to be reminded occasionally that he is revered by a new generation of young economists.

I hope the lessons we learn from his example are not only inspired by his academic achievements, which are, undeniably, considerable. I hope we can all appreciate that some opportunities present themselves from outside our direct control but it's how we choose to act upon them that can potentially lead to greatness. Coase was overly humble in his claim that greatness was thrust upon him and that while his life was successful, it was only due to a series of fortuitous accidents. Only a person of his spirit and intellect could have made the kind of impact he did on the world. Of course, a bit of luck certainly didn't hurt.


NOTE: Ronald H. Coase was the Clifton R. Musser Professor Emeritus of Economics. While his appointment was at The University of Chicago Law School, his accomplishments in the field of economics make him a celebrated member of the university community and longtime colleague of the Department of Economics.