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William Vickrey

William Vickrey was a Nobel Prize-winning economist who designed the so-called Vickrey auction and laid the groundwork for later discoveries that proved that progressive taxation inhibits a taxpayer's incentive to work.

Biographical fast facts

Full or original name at birth: William Spencer Vickrey

Date and place of birth: June 21, 1914, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Date, time, place and cause of death: October 11, 1996, at 12:43 a.m., St. Agnes Hospital, White Plains, New York, U.S.A. (Heart attack)

Spouse: Cecile (Thompson) Vickrey (m. July 21, 1951 - October 11, 1996) (his death)

Father: Charles Vernon Vickrey
Mother: Ada Eliza (Spencer) Vickrey


In addition to his discoveries that proved progressive taxation inhibits a taxpayer's incentive to work, and his creation of the Vickrey auction, William Vickrey also came up with theories for pricing electricity using off-peak pricing to promote efficient use of electricity and setting pricing on commuter trains, toll roads and bridges higher during peak-use periods to ease congestion on highways and public transportation lines. This congestion pricing was later adopted by electric and telephone utilities, airlines and some cities and highway departments.

Professor Vickrey died just three days after being named the winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on informational asymmetries, which addresses situations where individuals have differing or incomplete information. He addressed problems that arise when participants in any transaction, such as an employer and job applicant, an auctioneer and a bidder, mortgage loan officer and a borrower, the government and taxpayers, possess different amounts of information, a situation that is ripe for exploitation by one of the parties. The Nobel Prize selection committee specifically cited his approach to auctioneering (now known as a Vickrey auction), in which a sealed bid auction occurs, and the highest-bidding participant gets to buy the item, but at the price of the second-highest bid. This method is said to benefit both buyer and seller by improving the chances of a fair price that should reflect the fair market value of the item, and eliminated the inefficiencies of traditional auctions.

He taught at Columbia University (1946-81), and became a full professor in 1958. He was chairman of the Columbia Economics Department from 1964 to 1967, and was named Professor Emeritus in 1981. Over the years, Bill Vickrey served as a consultant to the United Nations and a number of nations around the world on matters of taxation, public utilities, transportation, and urban problems. In the early years of his career he served as senior economist with the Division of Tax Research in the U.S. Treasury Department (1941-43), research assistant for the Twentieth Century Fund (1939-40), and junior economist with the National Resources Planning Commission in Washington, D.C. (1937-38).

Vickrey was also the author of Agenda for Progressive Taxation (1947), and Public Economics (1994). His publications include at least eight books, 140 articles, 27 reviews, and 61 unpublished articles and notes.

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