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Vol. LXII, No. 3
 
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
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Halloween Encounter With Nobelist Leads to Presentation at High School

Ellen Gilbert

Was it a dark and stormy night? Perhaps not, but it was still a memorable Halloween for Princeton High School (PHS) junior Kan (“Edward”) Wang after he rang the doorbell, in trick-or-treat mode, at the Mercer Street home of Eric S. Maskin, the 2007 Nobel Prize winner for Economics.

As a result of their friendly exchange that evening, and the efforts of PHS Economics teacher Lisa Bergman, Mr. Maskin, the Albert O. Hirschman Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, gave a talk to juniors and seniors in the auditorium at PHS on Tuesday morning. In his introduction, Mr. Wang called Mr. Maskin a “down to earth man” who is an avid Red Sox fan, accomplished pianist, and enthusiastic tennis player. He noted that Mr. Maskin lives in the house where Albert Einstein lived, making him the third Nobel Prize winner to reside there. (The other was physicist Frank Wilczek.)

The serendipity of the Halloween meeting seemed to continue with the timely topic of the economist’s talk: “How Should Presidents Be Elected?” Using the much-debated results of the 2000 Presidential election as a starting point, Dr. Maskin asked how it was possible for Mr. Bush to win without actually having won a majority of the vote in Florida. The answer, he explained, had to do with the “Nader effect”: the presence of a third-party candidate who never had a chance to win, but who drew votes away from the other candidates — votes that would otherwise have probably gone to Mr. Gore.

Is there a better way to elect presidents? Yes, said Dr. Maskin, although neither of the two most commonly suggested alternatives — getting rid of the Electoral College or using a run-off system — would suffice. Getting rid of the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, which is unlikely to occur, and it doesn’t address the problem of the “Nader effect.” Using recent French elections as an example, Mr. Maskin went on to show that a run-off system also fails, since extremist candidates can still make it to the final round of voting, “disrupting the election for more serious candidates.” Nor does allowing voters to rank candidates mitigate against the undesirable effect of third-party candidates.

Ultimately, said Mr. Maskin, there is no perfect way to elect presidents, although “majority rule, comparing just two candidates at a time” seems to be the best solution. Candidates winning the fewest votes would not be elected, and “fringe candidates” would be prevented from changing the outcome of an election. Mr. Maskin pointed out that for this to happen it would be incumbent on each state to eliminate its Electoral College, rather than waiting for a constitutional amendment to be passed.

Students were encouraged to ask questions after Mr. Maskin’s presentation. One student wondered whether the country could vote on issues, rather than for or against candidates. In his response the Nobel laureate said that the problems with this scenario would include determining who decides what the issues are, and how these arbiters would be chosen. He also wondered how you can be sure where a candidate stands on a given issue, and suggested that voters should be wary of giving candidates too much credibility.

Edward Wang’s year-long visit to this country is almost up. His father has been a visiting professor here, and they will return to their native China at the end of this month. Edward describes his time here as “a golden opportunity.”

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