Nancy in the Nation… and a Nobel pet peeve

I forgot to blog this previously, so sorry for the delay. Anyhow, our own Nancy Folbre had a letter to the editor in the July 16, 2007, issue of The Nation. It’s a response to Christopher Hayes’ “Hip Heterodoxy.” As usual, she’s witty and wise.

The letters section is for subscribers only, so I hope The Nation won’t mind my taking just a minor liberty to quote Nancy’s letter.

Let me add one flourish to Christopher Hayes’s thoughtful and endearing description of hip heterodox economists [“Hip Heterodoxy,” June 11] and introduce one complaint. A mainstream economist who had downed too many free drinks once asked me what my department was like. When I described it as heterodox he was confused, and informed me rather soberly that there were no homosexual departments. Of course, neither the orthodox nor the heterodox are orthosex. But sessions organized by the International Association for Feminist Economics have enlivened economics conferences for many years now. I’m disappointed by Hayes’s failure to mention this, or to interview even one feminist economist for his story. Does he consider us unhet or just unhip?

Following Nancy’s letter was another that pushes one of my pet peeve buttons:

Christopher Hayes deftly spells out confusion in the field of economics. He avoids, however, two critical questions. First, is the “dismal science” science at all? Many find it nothing more than fancy (if not fanciful) statistics, not much different from actuarial studies. Insurance underwriters recognize that a person with a life expectancy of 74.5 years may live to be 100 or die at 50. Yet neoclassical economists seem surprised when the real world doesn’t perform according to their theories. Witness the 2004 election and how many people voted against their own economic self-interest, violating neoclassical theories.

Second and more disturbing, Hayes uses the term “Nobel laureate” to identify various prominent economists. The so-called “Nobel Prize in Economics” is not one of the five awards stipulated in Alfred Nobel’s 1896 will. It arrived nearly seventy years later, first awarded in 1969. It was instituted by the Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) “in memory of Alfred Nobel” as an effort to legitimize economics. Many physicists and mathematicians bristle at this award, claiming economics is not a science at all but uses mathematics to camouflage unproven and unprovable theories. Even Nobel’s great-great-grandson Peter criticizes the prize as “illegitimate–a PR coup.”

DONNA BOYLE, San Diego

I’m no great fan of neoclassical economics, and I probably agree with Boyle on most political issues. Even so, I feel I must point out that Boyle is off the mark in more ways than one. To begin with, neoclassical theories do not posit that people will or should vote in favor of politicians who will promote the voters’ economic self interest. Economic well-being is only one of many dimensions of life. So, even accepting neoclassical assumptions of rational persons making choices for their own benefit, such rational persons will have to weigh the pros and cons of all the aspects of their lives that they value–including such things as cultural values. If there are people who hate gay marriage more than they like a middle-class economic standard, then it is rational for them to vote for politicians who are homophobic and simultaneously pro-business/anti-union, etc. Neoclassical economic theory does not claim to be able to judge which desires and preferences will be stronger in any individual or group of people–in fact it is famously agnostic about preferences: one of the main complaints against it is that it ignores the ways that power structures, especially power structures built into the economy itself, can mold and shape the preferences of the people who then act rationally or otherwise in response. That is, in technospeak, neoclassical theory generally ignores the fact that economic preference formation is endogenous–internal to–the economy, and not something “given” from outside the realm of economics.

But that’s not my actual pet peeve. What gets under my skin is this non-issue of the Nobel Prize for Economics being somehow illegitimate. True: Alfred Nobel did not establish a prize in his name for economics. Also true: Alfred Nobel did not establish a prize in his name for biology. As I’ve read (though I’m sorry that I can’t recall where), his express reasoning was that he did not think biology was a real science. Biologists of his day were not in a position to do experiments in a convincing manner like the chemists and physicists that he did choose to honor. So does that mean that Alfred’s opinion of the status of sciences should be the final word for all time? Should administration of biology at universities be transferred to the Dean of Humanities? Does Boyle doubt the scientific bona fides of evolutionary theory any more than she does of economic theory? (Oh, and while neoclassicists do tend to win most of the economic Nobel prizes, not all the winners are beholden to that approach. Some, like Sen, are versed in alternative approaches including Marxian political economy. And folks like Stiglitz and Kahneman won the prize largely for their work in debunking the notion of rational actors in economic life.)

And the notion that the existence of a so-called Nobel Prize in Economics makes pretty much any difference in the world, beyond the lives of the individual winners and the reputations of the schools where they work, is hard to believe. Walk down the street and ask random people to name a single winner of the economics prize (or ANY Nobel prize for that matter). I’d be shocked if even 1% could do so. Survey Congress and the President and see what they answer: again, I’d bet that less than 20% of this elite, policy-making crowd could do so.

So the physicists and mathematicians bristle at the existence of a Nobel Prize in Economics? Big whoop. (And why would the math geeks care… they don’t have a Nobel Prize, so maybe it’s just jealousy.)

Much of economic policy deriving from economic theory has had as much or more negative results as positive, of that there’s no doubt. But Nobel’s prizes were supposed to be awarded “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” I think it’d be hard to claim that all the winners of physics or chemistry (or peace) Nobel prizes have actually conferred much real benefit on mankind. Take, for example, the 2006 award “for [the] discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation” which supports the Big Bang theory. Ummm, I think the Big Bang theory is really cool, and I like phyics (I grew up worshiping Isaac Asimov’s essays), but how exactly does mankind significantly benefit from the discovery of blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation? If humanity never enjoyed the existence of a Big Bang theory, the quality of our lives would be changed hardly a bit. We’d still have poor people and rich people and powerless people and powerful people and racism and sexism and wars and malnutrition and loving neighbors and beautiful sunsets. Intellectual discoveries are wonderful and inspiring, but they rarely actually matter THAT much.

Oh, and one of Nobel’s descendants doesn’t like the economics prize? Since when do readers of The Nation endorse nepotism? What makes one great-great-grandson’s criticisms so impressive? According to the Nobel Prize website, many of Alfred Nobel’s family members have failed to endorse Alfred’s desires w/r/t the prizes. “His family opposed the establishment of the Nobel Prize, and the prize awarders he named refused to do what he had requested in his will. It was five years before the first Nobel Prize could be awarded in 1901.” Since Alfred isn’t here to answer directly, who’s to say that this particular great-great-grandson represents the true ideals of Alfred any better than others of Alfred’s progeny who think the Economics prize is a-ok?

My conclusion: the Nobel Prize in Economics is as legitimate as any other memorial prize and anyway doesn’t much matter regardless of its legitimacy. It just doesn’t do much of anything that really matters in the grand scheme of things.

3 comments

  • Those behind the prize given to economists were clearly linking their prize to the “real science” Nobel prizes such as Chemistry and Physics. They simply wanted to get more PR for the economics prize and, along the way, cement in the public’s mind the claim that orthodox economics was “Science.”(That is, as opposed to sociology or heterodox economics.)

    It is no different than one manufacturer mimicking the packaging of a well-known & desirous product in order to fool the public. The product might be legit as anything else, but the marketing is clearly intended to fool people”¦which makes you wonder about those behind the marketing.

    They could have named it something else like the “Smith Medal” to parallel the Fields Medal given to Mathematicians (which likely confers more prestige than a simple Nobel Prize).

  • Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

    True, to an extent–the folks at the Swedish central bank who wanted to institute the economics prize were clearly trying to catch a ride on the coat tails of the established reputation of the Nobel prizes. However, the Nobel Prize organization was a willing participant and aside from the money (which comes from the bank) treats economics winners exactly as it treats others (so, for example, economics prize winners are listed on nobel.org in the same way as the physics, literature, peace, and other prize winners). And please note: the Nobel prize in literature does not fool anyone into thinking that poetry or fiction are sciences, nor does the peace prize make anyone think that there is a science to peace. If someone wants to think of economics as a science in the same way they think of physics as a science, they are welcome to do so. They’d be foolish to do so, of course, since economics is a social science and, though many practitioners borrow techniques from the natural sciences, I don’t think that any half-knowledgeable person actually argues otherwise.

    Anyhow, even assuming there is some sleight-of-hand going on here, what bugs me is those critics of the Nobel economics prize who seem to think that this actually amounts to something meaningful. Again, my assertion: the Nobel prize in economics does not actually affect anything important in the grand scheme of things and eliminating it would not improve anyone’s life one whit. If we must fight battles, lets choose wisely. (Said the pot!)

  • I have to disagree about your statement that knowledge does not greatly affect mankind. For example, while the knowledge of 2006’s discoveries may not significantly affect life now it may be the genesis for significant additional discoveries or inventions.