Nobel Laureate and Economist

July/August 2017

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Nobel Laureate and Economist

Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

At age 51, Kenneth Arrow became the youngest winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to the “general equilibrium” theory. Five of his students have become Nobel laureates in that field as well. 

Kenneth J. Arrow died at his home in Palo Alto on February 21. He was 95. 

Retiring in 1991 as the Joan Kenney Professor of Economics and professor of operations research, emeritus, Arrow spent most of his career at Stanford. In his time away from Stanford, he spent 11 years teaching at Harvard and was an economic adviser for President John F. Kennedy. 

Arrow obtained a bachelor’s degree in social science and mathematics from City College of New York and then continued on to Columbia University for graduate school. He took a break from his studies to serve as a weather officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and worked for the Rand Corporation, a research and development company in Santa Monica, Calif. 

Early on, Arrow studied majority voting and other means of making social choices. Arrow’s “impossibility” theorem used mathematical concepts to answer questions surrounding collective decision-making and the fairness of voting systems. 

Arrow won the 1972 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, together with British economist Sir John Hicks, for his contributions to the “general equilibrium” theory. The theorem asserts that the demand for a good or product depends on all other prices in the economy; it covers the market’s complexities and captures the interaction of consumer and product.

In 2004, he was awarded the National Medal of Science. The issue of climate change was of critical importance to him: He was a co-author of the 1997 “Economists’ Statement on Climate Change,” which detailed the ill effects of global warming and was signed by more than 2,400 U.S. economists.

His outside interests were vast and included music and Chinese art. His son David says, “What made my father such a particular genius was a combination of curiosity and brains. He was curious about everything and anything up until the day he died; everything interested him, and that made me curious too.”

Arrow’s wife, Selma, died in 2015. He is survived by his sons, David and Andrew; his daughter-in-law, Donna Lynn Champlin; his grandson, Charles Benjamin Arrow; and his sister, Anita Summers.

Julie Muller Mitchell, '79, is a writer in San Francisco.

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