When 90-year-old Leonid Hurwicz got a phone call around 6 a.m. from someone talking about the Nobel Prize, he thought it was a joke.
Hurwicz, an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota, learned Monday that he would share the Nobel economics prize with two other Americans and become the oldest person ever to win a Nobel.
When the telephone rang early in the morning, Hurwicz, who is hard of hearing, says he gave it to his wife, Evelyn.
“And she kept saying something about Nobel Prize, so I thought, `Well, that for sure is somebody’s idea of a joke.’ But then when I got a few other phone calls, I began to believe in it,” Hurwicz recalled with a laugh.
Hurwicz, who lives in south Minneapolis, said he was “delighted” to win the Nobel, which he shares with Eric S. Maskin, 56, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, and Roger B. Myerson, 56, a professor at the University of Chicago.
“There are times when other people told me I was on the short list, but I didn’t take it very seriously,” Hurwicz told The Associated Press.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the trio “laid the foundations of mechanism design theory,” which plays a central role in contemporary economics and political science.
Starting in 1960 with Hurwicz, the three men studied how game theory can help determine the best, most efficient method for allocating resources, the academy said.
The technique has been used in everything from negotiations over labor issues to the auctioning of government bonds and has helped countries and companies better understand how markets function even when conditions are rocky.
Hurwicz, who was born in Moscow and grew up in Warsaw, Poland, said he was attracted to economics because he was “a child of the Great Depression.”
“And I felt that one of the problems is that politicians come up with nice objectives and promises, but they don’t understand what the rules of the game could be, that would be more helpful than the rules that are,” he said.
“(It) doesn’t mean that you throw away everything you have, but maybe come up with some different twist on those rules.”
Hurwicz stressed that he is an economic theorist and could not really comment on how the world’s economy is doing now.
“I’m really not a systematic follower of how the economies are actually doing. I admit that I am a theorist and I don’t know enough, and if you ask me well, how is France doing or how is England doing, I have some impressions but they are very superficial,” Hurwicz said.
“But in general, I think that the economists understand how economies work, but they don’t always come up with any modification that would make it much better.”
Maskin said he was relieved Hurwicz was among the winners.
“Many of us had hoped for many years that he would win,” Maskin told reporters in Stockholm in a conference call. “He is 90 years old now, and we thought time was running out.”
For Hurwicz, the award means his ideas will live on a little longer.
“It means that (the) younger generation of economists will become more interested in this approach and perhaps somewhat influenced by it. So in that sense, it’s quite important,” he said.
In an audio comment posted by the University of Minnesota, university President Robert Bruininks hailed Hurwicz’s contributions to economics.
“I think the Nobel Prize is a very fitting recognition of his extraordinary leadership in the field of economics and the extraordinary work of our Department of Economics at the University of Minnesota,” Bruininks said.
The university Alumni Association cites University of Minnesota connections for 19 Nobel winners, including Norman Borlaug, the father of the “Green Revolution” who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize; the late author Saul Bellow, winner of the 1976 Nobel in literature; and the late economist Milton Friedman, who won the Nobel economics prize in 1976.
Most recently, in 2003, Minnesota native Peter Agre won the Nobel for chemistry. Now an administrator at Duke University, Agre flirted with running for a U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota next year.
Associated Press writers Malin Rising and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Karl Ritter and Matt Moore in New York and Geoff Mulvihill and Mike Derer in Princeton contributed to this report.
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