Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It could have been done better: Alvin Roth's "Who Gets What - and Why"

Alvin Roth has a Nobel Prize. If you want to get snotty about it, I can google it and remember that it is not a true Noble but instead the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” which is close. It’s as much a science as those other squishy awards they give in things like literature or “Medicine”.

Roth’s Noble is important because I think it was the driving force behind the creation of this book. Someone must have noticed that Roth didn’t have a book for pop econ reading that summarized his work. That person must have gone to Roth and encouraged him to write this.

It’s not that this is a bad book, but that is also not the parenthetical you want someone writing about to start a sentence with when getting to the meat of things. Roth’s work on market design is interesting and important, but the key thing is that when he explains it it sounds like one of those intuitive leaps that is so simple that it feels silly that no one else made them before. That is why the guy has a Nobel.

What the book really lacks is structure. We learn much about the markets for kidney transplants and the reciprocal chains that he developed; we learn much about about placing students at the schools of their choice; we learn much about the dangers of exploding offers and how they create suboptimal outcomes. It’s just that what we learn is scattered and feels systemic. It is as if the book was over-written to add a page count so that it legitimately feels like a book. It makes it repetitive and hard to engage with.

I know I had my issues. When a book makes me think and expands what I know or challenges my beliefs, I fill the front cover and title pages up with my own notes. I read this book front to back and I didn't even lazily dog-ear a page. So in the end where I want to say that this book is  a good introduction to the works of Nobel-Prize Winner Alvin Roth, I’d have to offer a caveat - It could have been done better.