Oliver Hart Autobiography



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Oliver Hart

was born in London in 1948. My parents were both doctors. My mother was a 



gynecologist at a time when women doctors in the U.K. were relatively uncom-

mon; she was a German-born Jew, who had left Germany in 1933 just after Hitler 

came to power. My father was an epidemiologist of some distinction whose par-

ticular interest was TB. He also was one of the key players in the 1948 Strepto-

mycin trial, which put randomized control trials on the map. He came from a 

long-standing Anglo-Jewish family. We lived in comfortable but by no means 

luxurious middle class circumstances in the Hampstead area. I was an only child. 

My parents had had a son about a year before who died a few hours after being 

born, and so my arrival was particularly welcome. Perhaps because of this my 

parents were quite protective of me. Since my mother worked, a caregiver, called 

Mrs. Shealey, helped out during my childhood. My father was 48 when I was 

born—very old for a father at the time—but he lived to 106. My mother died at 

93. I had a close and loving relationship with both of them.

My first regular school was a progressive one. My parents were left-wing and 

they thought that a non-traditional school might be a good option. At that time 

children in England took the eleven-plus, a forbidding test that sorted people out 

into “academic” and “non-academic.” My memory is that when I was eight, only 

one person in the class of eleven year-olds in my school passed the exam. Given 

that they mostly came from backgrounds like mine, my parents panicked and 

decided to go in absolutely the opposite direction: they entered me for admission 

to a “public” (i.e., elite, private, expensive) school in our neighborhood, called 

University College School. Part of the admission process, I recall, was a personal 

interview with the head-master of the junior school. He asked me to solve a 

long-division problem and when I showed him my answer he said there was a 

mistake. I disagreed and turned out to be right. Soon after my parents learned 

that I had been admitted, and I entered the school just before my ninth birthday.




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I take a few things away from the admission incident. I already had some 

intellectual self-confidence and was stubborn (even though I was actually quite 

shy). I had learned something after all at my progressive school. I was reasonably 

good at mathematics.

U.C.S., as it was known, provided me with a very good education. The quality 

of the teaching was high, the school was intellectually serious, and many of my 

peers were bright. I liked mathematics and there were plenty of opportunities 

to advance in this area. I moved to the senior School at 13, and shortly after 

won a scholarship, so that my parents did not have to pay any more. At age 15, 

having passed several (nationally administered) O-level exams (including Latin 

and Greek!), I specialized for my remaining time in mathematics, physics and 

chemistry, leaving the school at 17. I continued to like mathematics best, and 

had some minor interest in science. I spent as little time as possible on history 

or literature (which was very easy to do after age 15).

As I look back, I have generally good feelings about U.C.S., but also some 

reservations. It was all-boys, which I do not think was good for me. I could have 

benefited from feeling comfortable with girls earlier in my life. Also, although 

by English public school standards the school was quite liberal, one still had to 



FIGURE 1.

  With my parents Ruth and Philip, April 1950.




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call one’s (predominately male) teachers “sir,” and there was always the threat of 

corporal punishment although this was rare. I managed to avoid it. Interestingly 

the headmaster of the senior school did not like to carry out corporal punish-

ment and so it was left to the aptly-named Vice Master to administer a beating 

or two when the headmaster was away (the Vice Master was actually one of the 

most intellectual teachers in the school and I got on quite well with him).

At age 17 I was admitted to King’s College Cambridge. I had hoped to win 

some sort of scholarship, which although not worth much was prestigious and 

guaranteed that one’s name was memorialized on a wall at my school. But that did 

not happen. The senior tutor at King’s at the time thought that I would be better 

off not continuing with mathematics—that was for “Rolls-Royces,” I recall him 

saying—but, stubborn as ever, I ignored his advice and spent the next three years 

studying for a mathematics degree, which given the Cambridge system meant 

doing nothing but mathematics. I was good enough to receive a middling degree 

in 1969—a class 2. I recall that on the day the results were announced—they 

were posted on the wall of the Senate House (and later printed in the London 

Times—things were very public in those days), I decided to sleep in, but one of 

my fellow mathematicians went to look at them and by arrangement came to 

my room to report. He told me that I’d got “what was expected” (he received a 

first). I remember thinking both that he was exactly correct and that I wouldn’t 

have put it that way.

King’s was an exciting place to be in the late 1960s. The students were a gifted 

group. Among the people I knew well in my class, either then or later, were 

Mervyn King (later to be Governor of the Bank of England), Martyn Poliakoff (a 

cousin of mine, and a distinguished chemist and foreign secretary of the Royal 

Society), Ben Friedman (a colleague now in the Harvard economics depart-

ment), and Tony Judt (the historian, who sadly is no longer with us). Unfortu-

nately, King’s was all male at the time, which postponed my feeling comfortable 

with women even further.

The worst thing about my education both at school and later at Cambridge 

is that I never learned to write. Since others did, this must have had a lot to 

do with me. But I think that I could have benefited from less specialization in 

mathematics and sciences early on. Perhaps some of that time spent solving dif-

ferential equations in fluid dynamics and mechanical engineering could have 

been devoted instead to literature or history. Still I have to say that the grounding 

in mathematics has served me very well in my career as an economic theorist.

I graduated at a time of student rebellion and the idea of a job did not seem 

attractive. The answer was, of course, further study. But in what? People told me 

that mathematics was being used in economics, and I had a second reason for 



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choosing that field. I was quite left-wing at the time and liked to argue about 

politics. But I found that at some point my fellow-debaters brought in some 

consideration like the balance of payments and at this point I lost the argument. 

Clearly I had to learn something about this field.

So study in economics it was, and I applied and was admitted to a master’s 

program at Warwick University. The M.A. was a one-year course, but since I 

knew no economics the plan was that I would spend the first year catching up 

on basics and the second year doing the real thing. Warwick was a new and 

relatively small university at the time, which meant that the classes were quite 

intimate compared with large Cambridge lectures (although not with Cambridge 

supervisions). I felt immediately a vitality about economics that I had not felt 

about mathematics. Mathematics at Cambridge had been taught in a very sterile 

way: Theorem, proof, theorem, proof, lemma, proof, etc. Nothing was ever said 

about when anything had happened or who had done it. Was that result in Group 

theory proved three hundred years ago or last week? I had no idea.

Economics was refreshingly different. Since it was still a relatively new field, 

one felt that the frontiers were not that far away (this is less true nearly fifty years 

later). Names and dates were thrown around all the time. I liked this and felt 

an immediate affinity with the subject. I learned macroeconomics from Dick 

Sargent, international economics from John Williamson, and mathematical eco-

nomics from Richard Clarke (who sadly died young). Some of the mathematics 

that had seemed very dry seemed much less so when I saw how it could tie in 

with the world.

I owe Warwick a great deal because it gave me the start in my new life. How-

ever, much as I liked the economics department, I was quite lonely. There weren’t 

too many graduate students and many of my peers were married and showed up 

to class and then went home. I think that things are very different now.

In my second year I started to think about what to do next. John Williamson, 

who had a Ph.D. from Princeton, encouraged me to consider graduate work in 

the U.S. I had worked in New York for a few weeks in the summer of 1970 and 

toured some of the country with a friend by Greyhound bus, and the idea of 

spending more time there was appealing. So I decided to apply. In those days I 

was not very well organized and by the time I put in my applications it was close 

to the deadline, and, by bad luck, a postal/mail strike in the U.K. had just started. 

In those days there was not much alternative to regular mail and so my applica-

tions were destined to languish for weeks.

But then John Williamson made a wonderful suggestion. He was going to 

Princeton for a few days, and he offered to take my application by hand. A few 

weeks later I heard—the postal strike was now over—that I had been admitted 



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to Princeton and offered a decent financial package. I also received responses to 

my snail (almost literally)-mail applications. I think that I was admitted by Penn 

but I was rejected by MIT, Harvard, and Yale.

At the time I put my MIT, Harvard, and Yale rejections down to the fact that 

my applications had arrived late. Having been on the other end of the process I 

now know that deadlines are often waived for strong candidates. My record, good 

at Warwick but less good at Cambridge, was probably not attractive enough for 

the top places. (Princeton was less competitive then than it is now.)

So in September 1971 I arrived in Princeton. I remember immediately liking 

the place. Yes, it was mock Oxbridge, but it was also beautiful. And I liked the 

steamy, hot weather. It made such a change from the almost non-existent summer 

in England (global warming has changed things a bit). As soon as classes started 

I also realized that the Princeton canvas was bigger than what I had experienced 

before in economics. There were many more fields covered, the faculty was larger 

and more diverse. It was exciting.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Princeton and anywhere I had been 

before was the Graduate College. Built like an Oxford or Cambridge college, and 

located a mile or so from the main campus, this was where many of the graduate 

students lived and, amazingly, there were both men and women. So Princeton 

came with a rather pleasant social life. One met one’s fellow students from many 

fields over dinner, which was quite good particularly compared with British stu-

dent fare of the time. There was a certain formality—gowns had to be worn—but 

the atmosphere was anything but.

One of my fellow graduate students was Rita Goldberg, who was studying 

comparative literature (and who later successfully got the college to abandon 

gowns!). We became a couple in the spring of 1972, married in 1974, and have 

been together ever since. We now have two sons, Daniel and Benjamin, two 

grandsons, Gabriel and Jamie, and a daughter-in-law, Ellen. So I have very fond 

memories of the Graduate College and of Princeton!

I made many friends at Princeton, some of whom I still see or am in touch 

with. Although the department was not as strong as today, there were some 

very good students and faculty. I found that my background in mathematics 

and my exposure to mathematical economics at Warwick helped me to navigate 

the program and I was able to finish all my exams after one year in spring 1972. 

Early on I linked up with one of the professors, Dwight Jaffee. He was looking 

for a research assistant and I volunteered. We ended up writing a paper together 

on financial intermediation—my first publication. In the fall of 1972 Michael 

Rothschild arrived from Harvard as a professor. This was a hugely important 

event for me. Before Mike’s arrival I was not really aware that there was an area 



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called economic theory that was distinct from mathematical economics. This was 

the time when work in asymmetric information was at its peak and Mike was 

of course a central figure. For me it was an eye-opener to see the same degree 

of rigor that I was familiar with from general equilibrium theory (which I had 

learned from Richard Cornwall) being applied to “small” models.

But I did not at the time pursue the small model path. I had become inter-

ested in the question of the objective function of a firm. What is the generaliza-

tion of profit maximization in a world of uncertainty? This led me to the theory 

of general equilibrium with incomplete markets and I became aware of an impor-

tant paper by Peter Diamond on the efficiency of a stock market economy. At 

some point I realized that Diamond’s results did not generalize once one moved 

beyond the two-period, one-good economy that he had considered. I think that 

this must have been in the early fall of 1973. From one day to the next I had (the 

main part of) my thesis. Of course, it took some time to work out the details and 

write it all up, but I was on my way as a researcher. I received my Ph.D. in 1974.

I have jumped over an important episode. Mike Rothschild was a very 

supportive advisor and, given that there were few theorists or mathematical 

FIGURE 2.

  Marriage to Rita, June 1974.




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economists at Princeton, he thought that I would benefit from attending a six-

week (or so) summer workshop in mathematical economics at the University 

of Massachusetts organized by Hugo Sonnenschein. Hugo was kind enough to 

invite me and in the summer of 1973, Rita and I moved up to Amherst. It was 

the time of the Watergate hearings and the two of us watched the proceedings 

on TV in the evenings after I had attended the conference sessions during the 

day. This was the first conference that I had been to as a nascent researcher and 

the experience was wonderful. Many interesting papers were presented by many 

interesting people, and I lapped it all up. Hugo and his wife Beth were wonderful 

hosts and have remained life-long friends. Rita and I also met Andreu Mas-Colell 

there (and his wife Esther a year later), and Andreu and Esther have remained 

life-long friends too.

I even presented a paper at the summer workshop. It was some joint work 

with Harold Kuhn on a proof of the existence of equilibrium without the free 

disposal assumption (later published in the Journal of Mathematical Economics). 

Harold had a joint appointment in the mathematics and economics departments 

at Princeton, and was another important influence on me. He was a mesmerizing 

teacher and it was exciting to work with him even though what we produced had 

no great significance.

In the fall of 1973 I started looking for a job. My parents had been pushing 

me to return to England and Rita, who was still working on her Ph.D. thesis, 

and I decided to try it out. U.K. universities did not have a presence in the U.S. 

job market in those days, and so candidates had to apply individually for posi-

tions. Michael Rothschild knew Tony Atkinson, a professor at Essex University, 

well, and I applied and was offered a job there. So in September 1974 Rita and I 

decamped to Wivenhoe and I started teaching at Essex in October. The depart-

ment at Essex was quite good—as well as Tony, Christopher Bliss, Ken Burdett 

and Peter Phillips were colleagues (so was Peter Hammond, but he was away that 

year)—but morale was not high. This was partly because U.K. universities were 

going through bad times (these only got worse over the subsequent ten years), 

but also because Essex had a reputation dating back to the 1960s as a bastion of 

left-wing student activity, which did not put it in good stead with the funding 

authorities. I vividly remember during my year there that someone came in to my 

office and removed one of the bulbs in my ceiling lamp as an economy measure. 

(Sometimes I feel that this was a dream but I don’t think it was.)

In the summer of 1974, I had met Frank Hahn at a summer workshop at 

Stanford, and he wrote to me and said that there was an assistant lecturer posi-

tion at Cambridge and would I like to apply. Given the uncertain situation at 

Essex I decided to do so, and got the job. Rita and I moved to Cambridge in 



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September 1975 and that was our home for the next nine years or so. I also 

became a Fellow of Churchill College.

Returning to Cambridge was interesting, exciting and enjoyable in many 

ways. First, I was going back in a different field and to a different college com-

pared with my undergraduate days. Second, given its status and the college 

system, Cambridge was better able to withstand the poor economic climate than 

most other U.K. universities. Third, although the faculty was divided into dif-

ferent economic camps (neoclassical, Marxist, neo-Ricardian, etc.), Frank Hahn 

had managed to assemble a small, but superb, group of theorists around him, 

including David Newbery and Roger Witcomb as regular teaching staff, and 

Douglas Gale, Eric Maskin, David Kreps, Louis Makowski and Mark Machina 

as research fellows or visitors. So there was constant discussion of ideas and 

the intellectual environment was extremely stimulating. The period 1975–1981, 

when I taught at Cambridge first as an assistant lecturer and then as a lecturer, 

was one of the most exciting of my life.

I have mentioned that when I graduated from Cambridge in 1969 my writing 

skills were non-existent. I had to learn to write when I started to do economic 

research, particularly at Princeton, and it was a painful experience. Rita, with her 

knowledge of literature, was incredibly helpful. I bothered her endlessly about 

comma placement and the like. Semi-colons were a revelation. But gradually I 

started to make some progress.

I do not know whether my lack of writing experience can explain one very 

unpleasant incident that occurred in my early years. I had written a paper on 

portfolio theory—not part of my thesis—when I was at Princeton and I submit-

ted it for publication in the Review of Economic Studies. They accepted it with 

alacrity. I was not very good at titles. The first title was very long and I decided 

to shorten it before submitting the final version. The galley proofs arrived with 

the shortened title and I returned them. At some point I showed the paper to 

a senior economist, and he said that he liked everything but the title! I realized 

that in shortening the title I had made it misleading. Was it too late to change 

it? I phoned the production editor, who said, it’s not too late, just send me a 

letter with the new title. I remember feeling some concern, but thought that the 

production editor must know what he was doing, and went ahead. In October 

1975 the journal landed in my letter-box and I discovered with horror that one 

word of the new title had been printed incorrectly (in every place in the journal). 

Interestingly, the replacement word did not change the meaning of the title but 

made it incredibly clumsy.

I recount this at some length because the experience was extremely humili-

ating. A clumsy title does not matter to others but it does matter to the author, 



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particularly one who is feeling his way on how to write. The unpleasantness has 

remained with me for years.

One way to think about this is that the problem arose because the contract 

between journals and authors is incomplete. I wish that I could say that this 

prompted my interest in incomplete contracts, but I fear that this is not the case.

Turning to more pleasant things, a major intellectual event in my life 

occurred in 1976 when I attended the IMSSS summer workshop at Stanford (for 

the second time). Mordecai Kurz, who ran the workshop, decided that it would 

be good to have a session on finance, and designated Sanford Grossman and me 

to run it. I had met Sandy briefly in 1975, and knew that he was a wunderkind, 

but that was our only contact up to that point. We started working together for 

the session. I still remember when I first learned from Sandy, who was already 

well known for his work on price informativeness, that he was almost five years 

younger than I was. There followed what seemed a long silence. I was literally 

speechless. Fortunately, I was able to recover and we worked together for the 

next twelve years or so.

Sandy and I worked on many topics, including the objectives of firms, take-

overs, capital structure, and the principal-agent problem before embarking on 

work on incomplete contacts, the topic for which I have been awarded the prize.

Sandy was intellectually mature beyond his years and I learned a great deal 

from him, particularly about the Chicago approach to economics. Sandy is 

one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. At some point he decided that 

he wanted to apply his economic ideas in the financial world and he has been 

extremely successful at that, but I feel that his departure was a great loss for 

economics.

Promotion in the Cambridge economics faculty was almost impossible in the 

late 1970s and early 80s, partly because the faculty could not agree on anything. 

At some point it was time to move on and I was offered and accepted a profes-

sorship at the London School of Economics. I started teaching there in January 

1982 but continued to live in Cambridge. Commuting was not easy. As I started 

my new job there was a national rail strike.

It felt good to have a senior position and L.S.E. was a stimulating place to be. 

Among my colleagues were Tony Atkinson, Partha Dasgupta, Christopher Pis-

sarides, Ken Binmore, Richard Layard, and David de Meza. While giving a semi-

nar at L.S.E. shortly before I arrived, I met John Moore, who was finishing his 

Ph.D. there. In 1983 we started to work together. Meeting and working with John 

has been the second great intellectual event in my life. Over a roughly 25-year 

period we continued the work on incomplete contracts that I had started with 

Sandy, taking it in new directions, including foundations, corporate finance, and 



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the introduction of behavioral elements. John is a brilliant economist, with an 

extraordinary mathematical mind, who on several occasions was able to establish 

propositions and theorems that I could never have proved myself. John also pro-

vided important psychological support to me. We have had a close and intense 

friendship over many years, which extends to Rita and his wife, Sue.

As I have said on several occasions the work for which I won the prize could 

not have been done without Sandy and John.

In early 1984, Rita and I started to think seriously about whether we should 

move to the U.S. There were several reasons for this. Rita’s fellowship in Cam-

bridge had come to an end and she was looking for a job. The possibilities in 

the U.K. in her field did not look good. Indeed, given the cuts imposed by the 

Thatcher government, academic prospects in the U.K. did not look good for me 

either. In 1984 I took a visiting position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technol-

ogy and this was converted into a permanent position in 1985. The family moved 

to Lexington, Massachusetts, where Rita and I still live.

FIGURE 3.

  With my sons Daniel and Benjamin in New Hampshire, summer 2001.




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When I arrived MIT had probably the best economics department in the 

world. It was thrilling, but also quite intimidating, to be a professor there. Great-

ness was all around. Paul Samuelson still came into the department, Bob Solow 

was still teaching, and Franco Modigliani was only a couple of floors away. The 

younger people were very impressive too. Among my colleagues were Peter Dia-

mond, Eric Maskin (who soon left for Harvard), Jean Tirole, and Drew Fuden-

berg. I spent nearly nine years at MIT, and it was a very productive period for 

me. Much of my work on financial contracting was done during these years. But, 

eventually, for various reasons, a change made sense, and in 1992 I was offered 

and accepted a position at Harvard (not too far away, but a shorter commute 

from Lexington!). I started there in July 1993.

Anyone reading this far will probably think that I was restless, and there is 

some truth to this: I did move around a lot. But since arriving in the Harvard 

economics department, and I have been there now for over twenty-three years, I 

have never felt a desire to move again. This is home. The main reason for this, I 

think, is that not only do I have great colleagues and great students, but also the 

place is really friendly. There is no hierarchical structure and people are keen to 

help. The place is also run democratically (at least among the senior faculty!). 

Decisions are not made behind closed doors, everything is argued out at meet-

ings, and the people who are best prepared and make the best arguments win, 

whether they have been there for years or are new. This is refreshing.

I have formed close intellectual bonds with several of my colleagues, par-

ticularly Andrei Shleifer, Philippe Aghion, Elhanan Helpman, Pol Antras, Eric 

Maskin, and Jeremy Stein, who have all contributed to the incomplete con-

tracting agenda in one way or another. Andrei suggested in the mid-1990s that 

incomplete contracting ideas could usefully be applied to the question of whether 

services paid for the government should be provided by private contractors or 

public employees. This led to a paper that the two of us wrote with Robert Vishny, 

which included an application to prisons. The prize committee put quite a lot 

of weight on this paper and since the prize was announced I have found myself 

talking about it more than any of my other contributions. It is a highly topical 

issue that journalists and the public can relate to.

My relationship with Andrei Shleifer transcends work. He is an extraordi-

nary person, who has been a constant source of encouragement and wit for more 

than twenty years. I have had my down periods and Andrei has always pushed 

me up, telling me that my work was really important when I doubted it.

Philippe Aghion has also been tremendously supportive over the years and, 

together with Luigi Zingales, Mathias Dewatripont and Patrick Legros, orga-

nized a wonderful conference in Brussels in 2011 to celebrate the twenty fifth 



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anniversary of my 1986 paper with Sandy Grossman. This led to a book pub-

lished in 2016 by Oxford University Press.

Being at Harvard has had many other benefits. I have formed a close rela-

tionship with members of the Law School, particularly Lucian Bebchuk, Louis 

Kaplow, Kathryn Spier, and Stephen Shavell. I co-run a law and economics 

seminar with several of them. My exposure to these colleagues and to law and 

economics more generally has improved my understanding of contracts, and 

contributed immensely to my intellectual life and development. Cambridge is 

also a large intellectual community and I have continued to have close ties with 

people from MIT, including Bob Gibbons, Bengt Holmstrom (who moved to 

MIT in 1994), Birger Wernerfelt, and Michael Whinston. George Baker was also 

an active member of this community before he left Harvard Business School for 

the private sector.

My relationship with Bengt Holmström has been very important. We have 

written two papers together but more than that we have been close friends for 

many years and have talked not just about economics, but about our lives, and 

our hopes and disappointments. This has been invaluable.

FIGURE 4.

  With the family on Martha’s Vineyard, August 2015.




Oliver Hart 

369


As I look ahead to the next period of my life I feel a sense of anticipation. 

Being awarded the Nobel Prize is wonderful in many ways, and I am excited 

to explore some of the new possibilities that have opened up. At the same time 

many aspects of my life will stay the same. In the last few years I have embarked 

on a new line of research with Luigi Zingales and I hope to continue this. I plan 

also to spend a lot of time with my family. Rita and I are very lucky to live near 

one of sons, our daughter-in-law and our grandsons, and we see a lot of them, 

and vacation with the whole family, including our other son, each summer on 

Martha’s Vineyard, which is fantastic. I hope to continue to swim regularly for 

my physical and mental health, and to play the piano. I used to play as a kid, 

stopped for decades and then returned about eight years ago with the help and 

encouragement of my teacher, Jennifer Baverstam Weitzman (the wife of my col-

league, Marty Weitzman). I keep thinking that with a bit more practice I could 

rise above the mediocre and although this is probably not so I will keep trying.




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