Every day, you find accounts in the newspaper where this might apply. You've blogged about fashion choices and the market for typewriter ribbons.
I see things like that all the time. I started a blog a couple of years ago, mostly little items in the press that just caught my eye, to show my students [that] market design is everywhere.
What drew you back to Stanford?
Many of my students are on the faculty here. Part of the lure was to come back and be their colleague. We're empty-nesters, and we like Stanford. We [say] it was so much fun moving to Harvard and meeting new people that we couldn't resist doing it again.
As with med students and residencies, you've worked on placing kids in public schools and charter schools by weeding through the possible matches to get the student and school close to their top picks. Do any school districts in California use your methods, as they do in Boston, Denver and New York?
We spent some time talking to San Francisco, but that didn't come to fruition. Part of what makes school choice difficult and cumbersome is waiting lists. If we could streamline the process of getting kids the offers they want and helping them let go of the ones they don't want, that would help. And part of doing that is to integrate the charter schools and the public schools. If the charter schools are making independent offers, you can have a child with three offers. He may not decide for a while and that holds up three places where people are on waiting lists, and it makes them nervous.
Is this ultimately about fairness?
It's not just about fairness, but it is about fairness. It's also about efficiency. It's about equal access. We could use more best-quality schools. It's hard to get lots almost by definition. But even when you have scarce [best-quality] schools, schools have multiple dimensions, so the best school for my kid may be different from the best school for your kid, and wouldn't it be a shame if we put your kid in the school my kid should go to and my kid in the school your kid should go to? The efficiencies we hope to get in school choice are sorting these things out. We try to simplify the system from the user's point of view so they don't have to game the system.
There's the argument that if you just leave markets alone, they'll correct themselves. That's not the case for non-dollar-driven markets?
I would argue that it's not the case even for exclusively dollar-driven markets. The New York Stock Exchange, the epitome of a commodity market, has got lots of rules to make trading go well. There's a time of day when it opens, a time of day when it closes. It's got rules, and you can go to jail for violating them. They're designed to give people confidence. A free market has effective institutions that allow it to work freely. It's not a market where there are no institutions.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.