I was born in Renton, a suburb of Seattle, Washington, in 1911. I was the only child of Joseph and Elizabeth Stigler, who had separately migrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century, my father from Bavaria and my mother from what was then Austria-Hungary (and her mother was in fact Hungarian). I attended schools in Seattle through the University of Washington, from which I was graduated in 1931. I spent the next year at Northwestern University.
My main graduate training was received at the University of Chicago from which I received the Ph.D. in 1938. The University of Chicago then had three economists – each remarkable in his own way – under whose influence I came. Frank H. Knight was a powerful, sceptical philosopher, at that time vigorously debating Austrian capital theory but gradually losing interest in the details of economic theory1. Jacob Viner was the logical disciplinarian, and equally the omniscient student of the history of economics. Henry Simons was the passionate spokesman for a rational, decentralized organization of the economy. I was equally influenced by two fellow students, W. Allen Wallis and Milton Friedman.
The Chicago Economics Department was in intellectual ferment, although the central issues of the 1930’s were very different from those in later times. I had never before encountered minds of that quality at close quarters and they influenced me strongly. For example, Knight supervised my thesis, which was on the history of production and distribution theories from 1870 to 19152. He had a wonderfully critical mind, which, however, was not well suited to intellectual history because he could not understand, let alone excuse, the errors of earlier economists. It was perhaps a decade later before I could read Ricardo through my eyes rather than through Knight’s eyes.
My teaching began in 1936 at Iowa State College where T. W. Schultz was the department chairman. Two years later, I went to the University of Minnesota from which I was on leave for several years during the war as a member of Statistical Research Group at Columbia University. After the war, I returned to Minnesota, from which I soon moved to Brown University, and a year later, to Columbia University where I remained from 1947 until 1958. The last year, I was on leave at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, sharing a splendid year with Kenneth Arrow, Milton Friedman, Melvin Reder, and Robert Solow. In 1958, I came to Chicago where I have remained.
In retrospect, I, no doubt, purposely avoided administrative duties, and indeed, almost all non-academic entanglements. I recall my mother asking in about 1946 what I was and I replied proudly that I was a professor. A decade later she repeated her question and I repeated my answer. “No promotion?” was her comment.
Early in my professional life, I found that many areas of economics attracted me. I started working and publishing in price theory by 1938. In 1946, I published an early work on linear programming (The Cost of Subsistence) which solved the problem only approximately; George Dantzig soon presented the exact solution. In the 1940s, I began empirical work on price theory, starting with a test of the kinked oligopoly demand curve theory of rigid prices. In the 1950s, I proposed the survivor method of determining the efficient sizes of enterprises, and worked on delivered price systems, vertical integration, and similar topics.
In this same period, I was on the staff of the National Bureau of Economic Research. There I worked on the service industries and used what may have been the first total factor productivity measure (in Trends in Output and Employment). Later books on scientific personnel (with David Blank), on capital and rates of return in manufacturing, and on the behavior of industrial prices (with James Kindahl) were also done under Bureau sponsorship. It would be remiss to fail to mention the fascinating association I had with that remarkable economist, Arthur F. Burns.
Even before I came to Chicago, I had gotten interested in the existence of dispersion of prices under conditions which economic theory said would yield a single price. That interest culminated in The Economics of Information (1961) and later work – indeed I am about to enter into the study of the extension of this analysis to political behavior.
It was in the 1960s that I began the detailed study of public regulation. My interests were aroused, and my faith in the cliches of the subject destroyed, as so often with other subjects, by the discussions with my friend, Aaron Director. This wonderful man is that rarest of scholars: a clear-headed, imaginative, erudite man who enjoys the task of constructing luminous and original theories but does not even write them down!
Throughout the last 40 years, I have maintained a continued interest in the history of economics (as an aside, I am a diligent book collector; my oldest son is equally active in the history of statistics, and my oldest grandson has an immense collection of comic books – leading some friends to suggest a new gene!). That subject has lost its one time appeal to economists as our science has become more abstract, but my interest has even grown more intense as the questions raised by the sociology of science became more prominent.
I met my wife, Margaret L. Mack, at the University of Chicago. We were married in 1936. She died in 1970. I have three sons, Stephen (a statistician), David (a lawyer), and Joseph (a social worker). We are a close-knit family, and each summer we gather at a cottage on the Muskoka Lakes in Canada.
1. See my appreciation “In Memoriam: Frank Knight as Teacher,” Journal of Political Economy, June 1973.
2. Published as Production and Distribution Theories (Macmillan, 1941). A complete bibliography of my work is given in The Economist as Preacher, University of Chicago Press, 1982
* I wish to thank Gary Becker, Aaron Director, Milton Friedman, and Stephen Stigler for helpful comments.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
George J. Stigler died on December 1, 1991
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.