(Bloomberg) — Douglass North, who won a Nobel Prize for his studies of how political, social and other noneconomic forces shaped the economic growth of nations throughout history, has has died. He was 95.
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He died Nov. 23 at his residence in Benzonia, Michigan, according to a statement on the website of Washington University in St. Louis, where he was professor emeritus.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded North and University of Chicago economist Robert Fogel the 1993 Nobel in economics “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.” Both men were pioneers in applying modern mathematics to the study of history, a field known as new economic history, or cliometrics, after Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology.
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North focused on the role of institutions — the rules and conventions of a society, such as laws, property rights, insurance, politics and customs — in long-term economic development.
In a 1968 article, he argued that improved productivity in ocean shipping from 1600 to 1850 was due more to organizational changes — the rise of international trade and the drop in piracy, which reduced insurance costs and the need for manpower and armament — than to technological innovations, such as faster ships. That paper became “one of the most quoted research works in economic history,” the Nobel organization said in announcing North’s award.
“Putting it simply,” the organization wrote, “North maintains that new institutions arise when groups in society see a possibility of availing themselves of profits that are impossible to realize under prevailing institutional conditions.”
North was a professor for 15 years at the University of Washington in Seattle before moving in 1983 to Washington University in St. Louis. There, he founded the Center in Political Economy, which he directed until 1990.
“We have a long way to go in understanding the way economies and societies evolve through time,” North said in accepting his Nobel, “but the progress of the past three decades augurs well for the future.”