Robert B. Wilson, Nobel Laureate

Here is his home page.  He has been at Stanford Business School since 1964, and born in Geneva, Nebraska.  Here is his personal website.  Here is his Wikipedia page.  He has a doctorate in business administration from Harvard, but actually no economics Ph.D. (bravo!)  Here is the Nobel designation.

Most of all Wilson is an economic theorist, doing much of his most influential work in or around the 1980s.  He is a little hard to google (no, he did not work with Philip Glass), but here are his best-cited papers.  To be clear, he won mainly for his work in auction theory and practice, covered by Alex here.  But here is some information about the rest of his highly illustrious career.

He and David Kreps wrote a very famous paper about deterrence.  Basically an incumbent wishes to develop a reputation for being tough with potential entrants, so as to keep them out of the market.  This was one of the most influential papers of the 1980s, and it also helped to revive some of the potential intellectual case for antitrust activism.  Here is Wilson’s survey article on strategic approaches to entry deterrence.

Wilson has a famous paper with Kreps, Milgrom, and Roberts.  They show how a multi-period prisoner’s dilemma might sustain cooperating rather than “Finking” if there is asymmetric information about types and behavior.  This paper increased estimates of the stability of tit-for-tat strategies, if only because with uncertainty you might end up in a highly rewarding loop of ongoing cooperation.  This combination of authors is referred to as the “Gang of Four,” given their common interests at the time and some common ties to Stanford.

His 1982 piece with David Kreps on “sequential equilibria” was oh so influential on game theory, here is the abstract:

We propose a new criterion for equilibria of extensive games, in the spirit of Selten’s perfectness criteria. This criterion requires that players’ strategies be sequentially rational: Every decision must be part of an optimal strategy for the remainder of the game. This entails specification of players’ beliefs concerning how the game has evolved for each information set, including information sets off the equilibrium path. The properties of sequential equilibria are developed; in particular, we study the topological structure of the set of sequential equilibria. The connections with Selten’s trembling-hand perfect equilibria are given.

Here is a more readable exposition of the idea.  This was part of a major effort to figure out how people actually would play in games, and which kinds of solution concepts economists should put into their models.  I don’t think the matter ever was settled, and arguably it has been superseded by behavioral and computational and evolutionary approaches, but Wilson was part of the peak period of applying pure theory to this problem and this might have been the most important theory piece in that whole tradition.

From Wikipedia:

Wilson’s paper “The Theory of the Syndicates,”JSTOR 1909607 which was published in Econometrica in 1968 influenced a whole generation of students from economics, finance, and accounting. The paper poses a fundamental question: Under what conditions does the expected utility representation describe the behavior of a group of individuals who choose lotteries and share risk in a Pareto-optimal way?

Link here, this was a contribution to social choice theory and fed into Oliver Hart’s later work on when shareholder unanimity for a corporation would hold.  It also connects to the later Milgrom work, some of it with Wilson, on when people will agree about the value of assets.

Here is Wilson’s book on non-linear pricing: “What do phone rates, frequent flyer programs, and railroad tariffs all have in common? They are all examples of nonlinear pricing. Pricing is nonlinear when it is not strictly proportional to the quantity purchased. The Electric Power Research Institute has commissioned Robert Wilson to review the various facets of nonlinear pricing.”  Yes, he is a business school guy.  Here is his survey article on electric power pricing, a whole separate direction of his research.

Here is his 1989 law review article about Pennzoil vs. Texaco, with Robert H. Mnookin.

Wilson also did a piece with Gul and Sonnenschein, laying out the different implications of various game-theoretic conjectures for the Coase conjecture, namely the claim that a durable goods monopolist will end up having to sell at competitive prices, due to the patience of consumers and their unwillingness to buy at higher prices.

Wilson was the dissertation advisor of Alvin E. Roth, Nobel Laureate, and here the two interview each other, recommended.  Excerpt:

Wilson: As an MBA student in 1960, I wrote a class report on how to bid in an auction that got a failing grade because it was not “managerial.”

And here is an Alvin Roth blog post on the prize and the intellectual lineage.

The bottom line?  If you are a theorist, Stockholm is telling you to build up some practical applications  — at the very least pull something out of your closet and sell it on eBay!  A lot of people thought Roberts and maybe Kreps would be in on this Prize, but they are not.  The selections themselves are clearly deserving and have been “in play” for many years in the Nobel discussions.  But again, we see the committee drawing clear and distinct lines.

Let’s see what they do next year!

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