Michael Spence: Frank Advice to China's Leadership
Friday 21 February 2014
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A. Michael Spence won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2001 for esoteric research on how people make decisions when critical information is hard to obtain. But by that time, after more than a decade and a half as an academic dean at Harvard and Stanford, many of Mr. Spence’s colleagues had begun referring to him as a “former economist.”

Mr. Spence, who turned 70 last year, begs to differ: He learned to become a better, “older” economist, he countered.

With his background in studying information, he began thinking about how the Internet, compressing time and distance, would strengthen supply chains around the world. In 2005, the World Bank asked him to give the keynote talk at its annual conference on poverty reduction. Worried that he had little useful to contribute, he balked. “Why would you want me?” he recalled asking.

As it turned out, that talk, which “seemed not to bomb,” led his career in a new direction, prompting the World Bank to name him chairman of its Commission on Growth and Development in 2006. He chose 19 former planning ministers, finance ministers and business leaders to join the group — but only two economists, the Nobel laureate Robert M. Solow, who “probably knew more than anyone else about growth,” he said, “and me, who didn’t.”

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