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Minnesota's newest Nobel Laureate receives his prize

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Hurwicz and wife
Nobel Prize winner Leonid Hurwicz and his wife, Evelyn. Hurwicz received the 2007 Nobel Prize in economics at a ceremony in Minneapolis Monday. He was unable to travel to Sweden for the official Nobel ceremony.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Swedish royalty, guests in tuxedos and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra convey the formality of the Nobel ceremony in Sweden. 

A fanfare acknowledged each newly awarded laureate, who then shook hands with the King of Sweden and paused for recognition on the regal blue carpet emblazoned with the Nobel 'N.' 

Swedish ambassador
Swedish Ambassador Jonas Hafstrom, far right, presented Hurwicz with the prize in a concert hall on the University of Minnesota campus moments after the two other Americans to share the economics prize received their awards in Stockholm, Sweden.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

The evening ceremony was sent by satellite and projected on a screen seven time zones away, where it was still morning in the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the University of Minnesota's West Bank. 

Leonid Hurwicz, 90, in a charcoal gray jacket, brown pants and tweed vest, sat surrounded by his family on stage with hundreds of others watching, as his accomplishments were rewarded with the highest honor possible.

In characteristic fashion, Hurwicz deflected attention away from himself, saying he is grateful to be just a small part of the day's events.

"I just want to thank all the individuals and institutions that have participated," said Hurwicz. "I don't mean just the meeting today, but the development of various branches of science and arts, the role that the university has played over a century, really."

"I personally hope that all [the Nobel Prize] marks is that seeing, and living in, and speaking the truth is worthy of admiration."

In Stockholm, Jorgen Weibull, chairman of the Nobel Economics Prize Committee, acknowledged one of the drawbacks of open markets that Hurwicz first articulated -- that the parties of a transaction don't always have incentive to be forthcoming with information. 

Swedish Ambassador Jonas Hafstrom read the English translation of the Stockholm address to the Minnesota audience. 

"In markets it sometimes happens that buyers and sellers fail to agree about the price. Thus, not all beneficial transactions are carried out. Projects of common interest are sometimes not realized because the parties involved cannot agree how cost should be shared." 

The theory by Hurwicz, later refined by Eric Maskin and Roger Myerson, helped set principles that have guided economic policy ever since. 

At the Minnesota recognition ceremony, Hurwicz's son Maxim Hurwicz portrayed his father as an imaginative visionary who approached theoretical economics with honesty and optimism.

"Ultimately, are all people only motivated by their own self-interest? Do we have to be influenced with threats and rewards to follow the rules?" said Maxim Hurwicz. "That's a pretty depressing, pessimistic way to look at the world -- like it's all just a rat race. So Leo wondered, are there people who behave in an ethical way simply because it is in them to do so?" 

Hurwicz, father and son
Leonid Hurwicz and his son, Maxim, left, at a ceremony Monday where Hurwicz was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

The answer is "yes," and Leo Hurwicz named those people "interveners."

"Such a person intervenes to right a situation, simply because their ethical standards rule out corrupt behavior," explained Maxim Hurwicz.

Such people populate Leo Hurwicz's theory of mechanized design theory, which he first described in 1960, and provides context to complex interactions such as auctions and political elections. 

Maxim Hurwicz says he hopes the Nobel Prize is not merely a marker for his father's achievements in a stuffy, theoretical discipline. 

"I personally hope that all it marks is that seeing and living in and speaking the truth is worthy of admiration," he said.

After the ceremony in Stockholm, the new Nobel laureates were treated to the traditional formal banquet at Stockholm City Hall. 

In Minnesota, Leo Hurwicz headed off to lunch with members of his extended family to Old Country Buffet.