Monday, October 12, 2009

Nobel for Econ--Familiar Names

Good times for the Nobels, making more news by giving the Nobel Prize for Economics to two folks: Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson. I always get a bit of a thrill when this prize goes to people I have read. And for two people who greatly influenced Political Science, well, that is pretty cool since there is Nobel for Poli Sci, this is the closest we can get.

And, as I have mentioned in earlier posts about ethnic conflict, one's self-esteem rides on the esteem one feels for one's group--as political science gets respect, it makes me feel all gooey inside.

Williamson matters more for my work these days, as I have been sucked into the black hole that is principal-agency theory. The basic idea is that whenever anyone delegates, there are challenges that arise and how one addresses those challenges greatly shapes the organization and the behavior of those being delegated authority (the agents). I am no expert on p-a theory, and picked up much of it through osmosis as the Americanists at UCSD drank it in, and it had not yet become the koolaid of the rest of the department.

But for the project at hand, the behavior of various countries in Afghanistan, it provides a very useful framework for thinking about the question. Usually people focus on how principals oversee their agents to make sure they are doing their job--how does the boss ensure that the employee is working hard while the boss is out of the office? A problem that is very central to Mad Men most of the time--and to government.

For the Dave and Steve project on NATO and Afghanistan, we are less focused on oversight--making sure the job gets done--and more focused on the discretion delegated to the agent--when does the officer have to say no, say yes or call home for more instructions. That is where caveats come in--countries impose restrictions on their commanders in a variety of ways and vary quite considerably in how much flexibility/autonomy units will have. Our research seeks to understand why this pattern of delegation exists. So, Williamson does not provide us with the answers (perhaps he has, but I have not read of all of his work), but his work sets the framework for the project. So, between this work and the fact that Ostrom is a political scientist, I feel far fuzzier and warmer about these choices than about Obama's premature selection.

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