Episode 736: Messy Nobel : Planet Money What happens when a creativity guru meets the winner of this year's Nobel Memorial Prize in economics? You get life lessons in making art, and negotiating contracts.
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Episode 736: Messy Nobel

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Episode 736: Messy Nobel

Episode 736: Messy Nobel

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OLIVER HART: I can't use bad language on your program.


Oh, you can. You can.


Oh, yes, you can.

HART: Oh, can I?

SMITH: Absolutely.

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

SMITH: Warning - a Nobel laureate uses bad language on the show today.

GOLDSTEIN: On the morning that the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded this year, I got up really early. I was so excited. I pick up my phone, open it, check it. And...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel to all of Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom for their contributions to contract theory.

GOLDSTEIN: And I went back to bed. Contract theory - it's two words. They don't even sound good separately.

SMITH: You've got contract, and you've got theory. It's like a lose-lose.

GOLDSTEIN: And we were just planning on skipping this one. You know, we don't have to do a show every year on the Nobel Prize, so we'll just skip this year. But then, Robert, you had this idea.

SMITH: Yeah. Tim Harford, a economist, lives in the U.K. - big PLANET MONEY all-star - wrote the book "Undercover Economist."


SMITH: We love him. He just happened to be in town the same week the econ Nobel was given out. And he just wrote a book called "Messy," and it's all about clever ways to be more creative. It's about finding new techniques to solve old, difficult problems, which is what we had with the Nobel Prize.

GOLDSTEIN: So we asked Harford - can you be our advisor? You know, we don't want you to explain the Nobel, but we want you to give us some, like, creative techniques we can use so we can explain the Nobel in some kind of a fun, interesting, creative way.

TIM HARFORD: It's difficult because this year it's really mathematical. It's really inside baseball, so it's all hard. And also everybody comes out with a really quick take on what these guys did and why they won the prize. And so you feel you're coming late to a really difficult story that everyone's already done.

GOLDSTEIN: Wow. When you put it that way, I'm more out than ever on doing this show.


HARFORD: So you want my Is it because I am now a creative guru?

SMITH: Yes. Tim Harford, we do want your help.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So they awarded them the prize - do you want this in a Swedish accent?



HARFORD: Good choice.


GOLDSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show, we use mystical, magical techniques to unleash the creativity of living within us all...

GOLDSTEIN: ...Slash to talk about contract theory and the econ Nobel...

SMITH: ...Which also has a little magic inside.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Support for this podcast and the following message come from TransferWise, the cheap, easy way to send money between U.S. and more than 50 countries, including the U.K., Germany and Brazil. With TransferWise, you pay a small fee and get the real exchange rate, like the one you see on Google. Join more than 1 million people using TransferWise by visiting transferwise.com or downloading the award-winning app.


GOLDSTEIN: So, Harford, you know this already, but, like, our typical Nobel Prize show would be - call up the prize winners - call up Bengt Holmstrom, Oliver Hart - interview them, do a lot of writing, maybe come up with some practical applications. But we've been doing this for - I don't know - eight years now, and it's, like - it's starting to feel like a slog.

SMITH: And the thing we liked about your book is that it talked about people who were stuck in this rut. And it said sort of the way you can find creativity is essentially to force people to look at problems differently.

HARFORD: Yeah. If you set people a seemingly impossible or weird problem, suddenly they start seeing everything fresh. They're like a tourist in a completely new city. And you're going to get somewhere fresh because you're starting somewhere fresh.

GOLDSTEIN: So, Harford, I'm a huge fan of you, of your work. I'm delighted that you're here, but I have to say, like, as much as I want to sort of shake off the rut, I'm a little skeptical that there's just some - like, you know, one weird trick that's going to completely, you know, transform this show.

HARFORD: No, you're probably right. There probably isn't one weird trick, but there are lots of examples of people who have found ways to be more creative, to tap into something they didn't know they had.

SMITH: One version of this that we really liked from the book - and it was super simple. It's a - it's a deck of cards with sort of strange sentences written on them, and it's called Oblique Strategies.

HARFORD: And the creator of this deck of cards is none other than Brian Eno. And now half your listeners are saying, who's he? And the other half are super excited...


HARFORD: ...Because Brian Eno is a very interesting guy. He's a musician, both in his own right, and he produces other musicians. And he's been involved in some amazing albums. But what he often does in the studio is to push his fellow musicians out of their comfort zones by drawing these cards. And the instructions on these cards would often be very mysterious and, you know, oracular almost. So some of them would be water or...


GOLDSTEIN: Just the word water?

SMITH: Just water. Yeah.

HARFORD: Or go outside, shut the door, or twist the spine. And then of course all the musicians have to sit around going - what on Earth does that mean? But he got amazing results, and he's worked with everybody. He's worked with U2, with David Bowie, with Phil Collins - amazing musicians, although they weren't always happy with what Eno was doing. So at one point, Collins, for example, so frustrated with Eno and these stupid instructions from these cards - he started throwing beer cans across the studio.

GOLDSTEIN: Feel that coming in the air tonight.

JACOB GOLSTEIN AND ROBERT SMITH: (Singing) Do-do-do-do-do-ba-da-ba-da-bum-tss (ph).

HARFORD: Can we count that?


GOLDSTEIN: OK. So, Tim, we wanted to try these oblique strategies with you. We're going to have you draw a card. And then whatever it says on there, we promise we are going to follow the instructions wherever it may lead.

HARFORD: OK. The proper Oblique Strategies are a beautiful deck of crisp, white cards about the size of business cards in a black leather case, but I did not bring that with me to New York. So instead I have the Oblique Strategies app on my phone. Just draw a card.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. So it's just - it's an app. It says Oblique Strategies. It's black and white. So I'm just going to tap - draw a card. What context would look right?

HARFORD: What context would look right?

GOLDSTEIN: That's a very PLANET MONEY question right there.

HARFORD: Yeah, it's a very PLANET MONEY question. So in a way, that's almost not oblique enough.


SMITH: Right.

HARFORD: It feels almost too easy. So we're basically saying, let's talk about the history of the prize. This prize is controversial. We could talk about that. There's even a book out at the moment about how - it's by Avner Offer and another author how the Nobel Prize basically was trying to engineer a political change in Sweden.

GOLDSTEIN: Avner Offer, Oxford economic historian, author of a new book on the history of the econ Nobel, welcome to PLANET MONEY.

HART: How long are we going to be here?

SMITH: Oh, 45 minutes or so.

HART: Oh, good.

SMITH: Yeah.

HART: Excellent.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. Is that good? That's long, or that's short?

HART: The longer - the longer, the better.


GOLDSTEIN: OK, well, really? Let's see.

HART: Forty-five minutes of fame.

SMITH: Now, you may already know this, but the Nobel Prize in economics was not originally one of the Nobel Prizes.

GOLDSTEIN: Haters love to point that out every...

SMITH: Oh, Twitter - every year.

GOLDSTEIN: But there is this story - you know, all of the Nobels except economics were first given out in 1901, and nobody even thought about a econ prize until the 1960s.

SMITH: It comes about because the central bank of Sweden was in a fight with the parliament of Sweden.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. The head of the Swedish central bank - he wants Parliament to basically leave the bank alone. His name's Per Asbrink, and he comes up with this plan to get what he wants.

AVNER OFFER: His inspiration is - why don't we create a Nobel Prize in economics?

SMITH: Why economics?

OFFER: A Nobel Prize in economics would endow the policies of the Swedish central bank with the authority of science, comparable to physics, comparable to medicine. It is no longer the expression of the interests of Swedish business and Swedish finance. This is impartial, independent science.

SMITH: It's like wearing a lab coat to work so that people will respect you more, call you doctor.

GOLDSTEIN: Is that why you've been wearing a lab coat to work?

SMITH: That and the slide rule.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) So they want to create this Nobel in econ, and they have a lot of money, but you can't just go out and create a new Nobel Prize. You have to get the approval of the Nobel family.

SMITH: Of somebody named Nobel.

GOLDSTEIN: So people from the central bank - they go to meet with the family.

OFFER: The senior member of the Nobel family is an 87-year-old lady who is called Martha. And when they come to her, she says, I will not have a Nobel Prize in economics.

GOLDSTEIN: She says no.

OFFER: I'm not aware that she says no, but she makes a condition. And the condition is that it should not be called a Nobel Prize.

GOLDSTEIN: So she says you can't...

SMITH: You got the Nobel Prize in physics, Nobel Prize in medicine. You cannot call this the Nobel Prize in economics.

OFFER: Exactly.

GOLDSTEIN: So they're like, OK, we're going to call it...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in economics sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel.

SMITH: It's not a Nobel Prize, but the word Nobel is in there somewhere.

GOLDSTEIN: It's the last one. It's, like, blah, blah, blah, blah (ph) Nobel.

SMITH: It's the one you remember. But, you know, it's it's unclear to me whether this whole ruse - it's a little bit of a ruse - worked, whether they did manage to dress up economics in that lab coat.

GOLDSTEIN: And, you know, there are a lot of settings where we hear about economics where it is clearly not, like, a hard science like physics - right? - like public policy. You know, you can't run a bunch of randomised trial experiments where you have Country A do one thing and then another country that is exactly like Country A do a different thing and say, look, I have scientific proof that my policy is better. You cannot do that.

SMITH: So Cornell shouldn't build that minimum wage accelerator?

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) I mean, you know, they got Cornell building the $12 accelerator. They got Stanford to building the $15 accelerator, and we will know once and for all.

SMITH: Avner Offer, for his part - he's got a pretty clear view of what he thinks of the prize.

OFFER: I think that to the extent that it upholds this view that economics has some kind of special authority in the way that physics has about the physical world, then it's not a good thing because economics does not have that authority.

GOLDSTEIN: So if we think of the econ Nobel Prize as sort of sitting over there next to the literature prize, that's good. And if we think of it as sitting there next to the physics prize, that's kind of bad. That's problematic.

OFFER: I would say that, yes.

SMITH: Economics tell stories about the way we live our lives.

OFFER: It tells - it describes imagined world. It's a kind of science fiction.

SMITH: A kind of science fiction - I think we should just end it there.

GOLDSTEIN: So, Harford, I'm conflicted about that part of the story we just did. Like, I like it. I find it interesting. It sounds like every other episode of PLANET MONEY. You feel me? Like that is just straight-up PLANET MONEY right there.

HARFORD: That's true, and you haven't actually answered the problem of this year's Nobel.

GOLDSTEIN: The problem we called you in for - How do we explain contract theory?

HARFORD: So this is all about context. It's - old picture frame - beautiful picture frame - there's no picture. So we need - we need this year's prize.

SMITH: Let's keep going. Let's do another Oblique Strategy.

SMITH: Robert, do you want to draw?

SMITH: Yeah, yeah. I'm going to hit the button. It says draw card. Breathe more deeply.


HARFORD: That felt good.

SMITH: It did feel good. I feel less worried.

HARFORD: You have to bear in mind, these strategies were originally designed for a recording studio. So every now and then, you get something that's very musical.

GOLDSTEIN: We're in a recording studio.

HARFORD: Yeah, but you don't have a guitar, Jacob, except in your head.

GOLDSTEIN: What if I pulled out a guitar right now?

SMITH: Oh, that'd be so awesome.


SMITH: Ladies and gentlemen, Jacob Goldstein.


GOLDSTEIN: (Singing) Can have some contract theory now?

SMITH: All right.

GOLDSTEIN: (Singing) Going to do some...

SMITH: All right. No more pussyfooting around with this, Jacob. We're doing contract theory.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. So contract is a contract, right? It's an agreement between two people, two companies.

SMITH: It's just occurred to me with you talk, you use your hands, and now your hands are filled with guitar.

GOLDSTEIN: I can - I can - I can wave one hand around. Here's one hand.

SMITH: Nice.

GOLDSTEIN: So, you know, when you're writing a contract - right? - you want to think about all the potential things that can happen in the future, so you don't get screwed basically, right?

SMITH: That's what lawyers are for.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. What happens if your factory burns down?

SMITH: Keep going. Keep going.

GOLDSTEIN: What happens if you don't deliver the product on time? You know, you can write all of these details into a contract. Contract can be as long as you want it to be.


GOLDSTEIN: I'm going to just play a little guitar.

SMITH: Just play, man.

GOLDSTEIN: So there's always going to be things you can't see coming, right? You can never put every future state of the world into a contract. So this is a problem, right? Somebody's going to get screwed. You're going to get a bad outcome.


GOLDSTEIN: So Oliver Hart, one of the guys who won the Nobel Prize - right? - his key work is about this. He called it incomplete contracts. You know, there are all these unknown unknowns. What do you do about them? And his big insight was this. He said, look, sometimes if certain conditions apply, one company should just buy the other company outright. That way, there's no risk of getting screwed over in the long term when the unknown unknowns happen. I don't think we should talk about the coal mine, do you?

SMITH: You've got coal mine music. Coal mine's a perfect example. For instance, if you have an electric plant - burns coal, needs to have a long-term contract with coal - right? - needs coal. So it thinks, hey, I'm going to put my electric plant right next to the coal mine. That way the coal doesn't have to travel so far.

GOLDSTEIN: Sounds like a good idea.

SMITH: Sounds like a good idea, but if you wrote up this big, long contract with the coal mine, what if you need a different kind of coal? What if something happens?

GOLDSTEIN: Like if a regulation change is made, and they're like, now you've got to use a different kind of coal.

SMITH: Yeah, like if regulation changes. But my plant's stuck next to the coal mine.

GOLDSTEIN: Coal mine can screw you.

SMITH: So under these circumstances, the electric company should just buy the coal mine, just own it - own it, and then you have control. Smart guy, Oliver Hart.

GOLDSTEIN: And, you know, because it's science or sort of sciencey (ph) or whatever, he didn't write a novel about this. And we should say he wrote his key paper with Sanford Grossman, went off to be a rich finance guy. They wrote all these equations. And I actually asked around yesterday, said - what is the most important equation in the paper?

SMITH: And did everybody agree on the most important equation?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, it's equation number 14. It goes like this. A-tilde-sub-I is less than or greater than A-sub-I-star as phi-tilde-sub-I is less than or greater than phi-sub-I-star.

SMITH: It's better than a lab coat.

GOLDSTEIN: That's got to be true.

SMITH: It's got to be true. It's an equation.

GOLDSTEIN: So this insight had all these different applications in the real world.

SMITH: Yeah, it helped people think about corporate mergers, about the government, what they should and shouldn't contract out. Hart wrote a paper in the '90s arguing that contracting out prisons to private companies was a bad idea because there are too many unknown unknowns. Better for the government to just run prisons themselves. It's in the theory. It's in the equation.

GOLDSTEIN: And, like, more generally, this paper changed the way economists think about firms - what a firm is, about the way firms work with each other. It was hugely influential.

SMITH: I don't know. Was that cheating? Does that count as creative?

GOLDSTEIN: It was - we did the same thing we always do, but with a guitar.

GOLDSTEIN: Was that oblique enough? I mean, I have to say that I think playing music actually did shake me out of my rut. It made me talk a little more slowly, be a little more, like, reflective. I think it - I think it...


GOLDSTEIN: I think it's sort of worked.

SMITH: I think you knocked your guitar over.

GOLDSTEIN: I think it sort of worked.

HARFORD: That was weird, and that was beautiful. You know, I could - I could listen to contract theory with a bit of guitar. That was - I think that worked.

SMITH: I think this whole thing is working. We want to do another one.

HARFORD: OK. You ready?

SMITH: Yeah.

HARFORD: Not building a wall - making a brick.

SMITH: Say it again.

HARFORD: Not building a wall - making a brick.

GOLDSTEIN: Very oblique.

SMITH: How many are we allowed to go through?

GOLDSTEIN: Let's just get a few.


HARFORD: But - yeah, it's...

SMITH: No, we've got to talk about this one.

HARFORD: Stick with this one for a while.


GOLDSTEIN: So this is what the gods have given us.

SMITH: OK, so here's what it means to me. Like, don't think of, like, this whole big thing we have to make. Think of, like, one very - one little piece or just one something hiding in there. Go small.

HARFORD: Exactly. Zoom in. I have a suggestion for you if you want. Would that be cheating?

SMITH: Oh, yeah.


HARFORD: So I don't know if you know this, but Oliver Hart has changed his mind.


SMITH: Oh. We love changing minds.

HARFORD: So you might want to look into that.

HART: Yes, I'm here. Can you hear me?

SMITH: I can hear you. Who is this? Who is this on the line?

HART: OK. This is Oliver. Oliver.

SMITH: Oliver who?

HART: (Laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: Oliver Hart, Nobel laureate.

SMITH: So we've been - we've been looking at your work. We've been talking to people about your work and trying to understand it and trying to understand, more importantly, how we can explain it to other people. And we had sort of one big question. Did you change your mind?

HART: (Laughter) Well, could you perhaps clarify why you ask that?

GOLDSTEIN: We'd be happy to clarify that. So, Hart, that big paper we just talked about - that came out in the '80s. About a decade after that, these two prominent economists - they published this really deep critique of that paper, of Hart's work.

HART: It was sort of pointed out by - actually, by two other people who have won Nobel Prizes, Eric Masking and Jean Tirole...

SMITH: Ouch.

HART: That if people were, you know, a hundred percent rational, there would be a way of overcoming the contractual incompleteness.

GOLDSTEIN: Essentially, in their paper, they say, OK, Hart. You were talking about these unknown unknowns in contracts. That's the incompleteness. You're assuming people are perfectly rational 'cause that's what economists do when they do this kind of thing. But in this paper, they say if people were perfectly rational, they could solve the kinds of problems you're talking about. They could agree in advance that they would bargain in certain ways when certain things came up. And you wouldn't have to have one company buy the other company to solve the problems.

SMITH: And Hart looks at this critique, and he says, by Jove - by Jove, they're right. The original theory does not hold up.

GOLDSTEIN: And so to solve this problem that they've pointed out, to make it all makes sense, he realizes something - something that for an old-school economist like Oliver Hart is a huge deal. He realizes that he has to assume that people entering into contracts are not entirely rational.

SMITH: He starts changing his theory of incomplete contracts to include psychology, ideas about fairness, magic.

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, sort of, right?

SMITH: Hippie stuff.

GOLDSTEIN: Hippie stuff that does not play much of a role in traditional economics.

SMITH: Oliver Hart changed his mind.

HART: Changed my mind in the sense that I would have - when I started on this work, if people had said, you know, the only way you're going to do it is if you're going to depart from the assumption that people are rational, I would have - I would probably laughed. I would have thought that can't be right. So I've learned something.

GOLDSTEIN: That's interesting. Why would you have laughed when people said that to you initially?

HART: I would have said, look, we're talking about maybe large companies, let's say, or venture capitalists or, as I say, you know, government that's deciding whether to privatize a prison. I would have thought those were pretty rational, hardheaded people.

GOLDSTEIN: Hart says a lot of other economists - they still think this way. And he says this warmer, fuzzier theory has has been kind of a tough sell.

SMITH: Yeah. A lot of his fellow economists have given him a really hard time about it. And you'd think now that Hart has won a Nobel, maybe he's moved on. No.

HART: Any slights, you know, I remember forever. Compliments I forget right away.

GOLDSTEIN: Nobel Prize doesn't mean a thing, but that one thing that guy said to me.


HART: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SMITH: No, seriously. Like, Oliver Hart told us all these stories of specific people who had criticized his work. He did this talk at Berkeley once, and there was this friend of his who raised his hand.

HART: A former student of mine - I'm not going to name him, but he's a good friend of mine. I like him very much. But he said - he actually asked a question. He said, basically, how does this work compare to your earlier work?

GOLDSTEIN: What did you take that question to mean?

HART: I'm sorry. It meant - I can't use bad language on your program.

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, you can. You can.

SMITH: Yes, you can.

HART: Oh, can I?

SMITH: Absolutely.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, yeah.

SMITH: All right. So it meant, you know, the old stuff was good, and this is shit.


HART: That's when I took it to mean. And I didn't feel - you know, obviously, I thought this is going to be a hard sell - this stuff.

GOLDSTEIN: When the Nobel Committee gave Oliver Hart the prize this year, they focused almost entirely on that original version of his theory - the one where people are entirely rational - but he's still out there talking about this new version. He says he's got to do it.

SMITH: So he had a theory. Someone critiqued the theory. He thought long and hard about it, and he said, OK, I will incorporate those critiques into a new theory. It sounds like science.

GOLDSTEIN: It does except for one really important fact, which is, for the most part, nobody's really doing experiments here. Nobody's going out into the world to, like, actually see if it's true, see if the world really...

SMITH: To visit the coal mine.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, there's no - it's not evidence-based, right? It's just what Avner Offer called that imagined world. They're just imagining this world and then thinking really hard about it in great detail.

SMITH: So you can just as easily say Oliver Hart told a wonderful story. Someone critiqued some of his characters and plot points.

GOLDSTEIN: Their motivations.

SMITH: And he sort of - he rewrote his story.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, you can say it's kind of like literature that way. I mean, to me, the core of the Oliver Hart story is - I think it's super admirable that a famous economist was courageous enough to change his mind.

HART: If you look hard enough at a problem, you realize, you know, the way you thought it was going to work doesn't work. Then you have to consider alternatives.

SMITH: Yeah. So you're not building a wall. You're making a brick.

HART: Yeah. That's a nice way of putting it. Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Whoa (ph).

SMITH: OK. Thanks. Thank you for your time.

HART: (Laughter) I'll have to think think about that, but it sounds nice.

HART: OK. Thanks very much. Bye.

HART: Bye-bye.

SMITH: Harford, you're killing it. This is so good.

GOLDSTEIN: This is way better than I thought it would be, honestly.


SMITH: One more. Come on.

GOLDSTEIN: One more.

HARFORD: So one more, Goldstein.

GOLDSTEIN: Give it to me. I'm ready.

HARFORD: You need another fix.

GOLDSTEIN: I love it.

HARFORD: Yeah, it's good. It's a good tool, isn't it?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I really like it. Yeah.

HARFORD: OK. Draw a card. Destroy nothing. Destroy the most important thing.

GOLDSTEIN: We're out.


GOLDSTEIN: Please let us know what your favorite Phil Collins song is.

SMITH: "Sussudio."

GOLDSTEIN: Email us at planetmoney@npr.org, or find us on Twitter or Facebook.

SMITH: Today's show was produced by Sally Helm. And special thanks again to Tim Harford for being our creative guru. His new book "Messy" is out in the United States now. Pick it up.

GOLDSTEIN: And if you're looking for something else to listen to, check out the Death, Sex and Money podcast. They just recently did an extended version of a story that Noel King did here at PLANET MONEY this summer. The story is about a man who was tortured by the Chicago Police Department and who, decades later, got a reparations check from the city of Chicago. The show is called Death, Sex and money. You can find it wherever you get your podcast.

SMITH: I'm Robert Smith.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

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