The XX Factor

“Well, They Had To Give It to a Woman at Some Point”

In the wake of Elinor Ostrom’s surprise Nobel win, unemployed economists are really turning on the charm. Check out the seething bitterness on this message board for job-seeking econ geeks . Ostrom isn’t one of their studly quant jock heroes, so these boys have decided that she’s just a P.C., feminist-friendly token of a pick. My favorite comment: “This is the problem with Affirmative Action. Last time a woman tried to go to the moon, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after the launch.” And not only does she lack the virile, rugged masculinity we all associate with working economists, she doesn’t even call herself an economist! She’s a politicial scientist-just the kind of hedging you’d expect from a woman.

The thing is, economists with jobs seem pretty impressed with Ostrom. Men like Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith , Harvard’s Ed Glaeser , and Stanford’s Paul Romer say she’s both brilliantly creative and rigorously empirical in a discipline that can discourage engagement with the actual world. “Elinor Ostrom may arguably be considered the mother of field work in development economics,” says George Mason professor Alex Tabarrok . “She has worked closely investigating water associations in Los Angeles, police departments in Indiana, and irrigation systems in Nepal. In each of these cases her work has explored how between the atomized individual and the heavy hand of government there is a range of voluntary, collective associations that over time can evolve efficient and equitable rules for the use of common resources.”

Elinor Ostrom has taken an interest in the way humans coordinate. She doesn’t seem to care much whether her findings are called “political science” or “economics” or “anthropology.” This kind of interdisciplinary chutzpah seems enormously, fascinatingly threatening to some people.