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But It’s a GENUINE Fake Nobel

October 12th, 2009 · 11 Comments

It seems like every year someone feels obligated to remind us that the Economics Nobel isn’t a real Nobel Prize because it’s not one of the categories established by Alfred Nobel’s will. Yglesias does the honors this year, implying that this is some sort of strange scam where the Bank of Sweden somehow convinced people to start calling their economics award a Nobel.  I would think what convinced people was mostly that the Economics Prize has been endorsed by the Nobel Foundation, and is announced right there on their Web site along with the other prizes, and given equal billing. Like the other science prizes, the winner is chosen by the Swedish Royal Academy of the Sciences according to the same procedures.  I suppose you can take the position that the list of prizes named by Alfred is exhaustive of the “real” Nobels regardless of what the Nobel Foundation or the Royal Academy decide to do, and hey, whatever makes you happy. But I’m not sure why this is supposed to matter.  Insofar as it’s never been Alfred personally selecting the winners, I had assumed the prestige the prize carried had to be a function of the credibility of the Foundation and of the selection process. The Foundation, to be sure, makes the semantic distinction between Alfred’s originals and the Nobel memorial prize in economics, but it’s a bit confusing why an award they decided to add to the roster after the fact should be considered a “fake Nobel” any more than snowboarding should be described as a “fake Olympic sport”—not dating from ancient Greece and all.

What’s actually going on here is that some free-market economists, among them Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, have won the prize, and so some folks who don’t especially care for their views feel compelled to try to deny them the aura of respectability that comes with the Nobel name.  But insofar as that respectability never really had much to do with the personal blessing of a 19th century arms dealer, it’s hard to see how this makes sense, and always strikes me as a little petty.

Update: Ok, Ygz says he had no particular axe to grind here, and wasn’t even aware of the various Chicago Schoolers and other free-market boosters who have won the prize.  My bad for implying otherwise. But this isn’t a crazy theory of a “vast left wing conspiracy” that I dreamed up.  The bit about how the Economics Prize isn’t a “real” Nobel—usually coupled with the suggestion that it was dreamed up by banking elites as a scheme to legitimize their academic minions—is a pretty common trope of folks who want to attack winners they dislike, which in my experience has usually been the Chicagoans. Google around; you’ll find plenty of instances.

Tags: Economics · Language and Literature



11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nick // Oct 12, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Is that really the reason? I wasn’t aware that any extra animosity was held towards the Economics prize due to the people who’ve won it; again, freaking Kissinger has a freaking Peace Prize (as does Arafat, or Sadat, if you want someone equally ridiculous but less close-to-home). This seems more like a misguided sense that “genuineness” is to be strived for than a misguided attempt to discredit a prize that someone unsavory has won in the past.

  • 2 Matthew Yglesias » Nobels // Oct 12, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    [...] Swedish Central Bank economics prize isn’t a “real” Nobel Prize. Julian Sanchez goes so far as to suggest that this is all part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to discredit the late Milton Friedman. I [...]

  • 3 DivisionByZero // Oct 12, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    I am still waiting for them to establish the Nobel prize in philosophy. ;-)

  • 4 southpaw // Oct 13, 2009 at 1:46 am

    I could honestly care less about the internecine fights between Friedmanites and Keynesians or whatever. Rather, it’s the entire discipline of economics and its pretensions toward science that cheeses me off. 80%+ of the literature seems to be predetermined by the author’s political orientation, and even more than that is reliably flattering to present trends and catastrophically wrong over the long-term. Why should I respect a prize in that discipline? It’s just a Nobel for reading entrails.

  • 5 sam // Oct 13, 2009 at 7:17 am

    Well, Matt’s basically pissed, if I read him correctly, about the pretensions of economics to being some kind of hard science (read mathematical) like physics and chemistry. He’s annoyed by this. I share his annoyance. The model of human action implicit in much economic theory is, if I may say so, impoverished. To borrow from Wittgenstein, what we have in much of economics is mathematical methods coupled with conceptual confusion.

  • 6 Sam C // Oct 13, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Sure, ‘it’s not a real Nobel’ is a cheap – and, as you say, silly – way of attacking disliked winners, but it’s not at all confined to left-wing critics of free-marketers. Did you see the responses from some on the right to Paul Krugman winning?

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Oct 13, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I saw some people flipping out about the particular choice, saying it was political and meant as a slap at Bush–which may well have been a factor in the timing, though I don’t think anyone really doubts Krugman’s academic work is Nobel caliber. I didn’t see so much calling the legitimacy of the award per se into question

    As for the status of the field, I don’t know that anyone imagines it’s a “hard science” in the same sense as physics. I also find it a little absurd to see people suddenly talking like economics is on par with phrenology because most economists failed to predict the subprime meltdown. Complex systems are hard to make predictions about even when there really are (relatively) simple, rigid laws governing the constituent elements.

  • 8 Sigivald // Oct 13, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Me, I think that the Peace Prize isn’t a “real” prize, even though Alfred did endow it.

    Because it doesn’t typically reward results, it’s not even as “real” as the Literature prize.

    (Let alone Economics, which rewards real world-class economic research. As Julian mentions – while I despise Paul Krugman’s politics and what they’ve done to his domestic political analysis, my understanding is that his work on international trade, for which he was awarded the Prize, is genuinely top notch.)

    Some of the Peace recipients have done great work for mankind (Norman Borlaug), and some were great men who did great things for some class of people or some nation, if not the whole world (Martin Luther King, Jr.), but on the whole?

    When you give Yasser Arafat a prize for “peace”, you should just stop expecting people to take it seriously.

  • 9 Barry // Oct 15, 2009 at 11:10 am

    7 Julian Sanchez

    “I also find it a little absurd to see people suddenly talking like economics is on par with phrenology because most economists failed to predict the subprime meltdown. Complex systems are hard to make predictions about even when there really are (relatively) simple, rigid laws governing the constituent elements.”

    Well, I haven’t noticed any humility on the part of the Chicago School before the meltdown, or even now.

    As for predicting the meltdown, I’ll leave that as an excerise in your Google-fu. Along with warnings about the bad effects of repealing so many New Deal-era banking regulations (whocudanode that they were there for good reason?).

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Oct 16, 2009 at 1:44 am

    Yes, yes, Ron Paul predicted it too. This and the last dozen recessions that didn’t happen. I’ll remember to be impressed after my lobotomy.

  • 11 Patrick // Dec 18, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    The prize is not condoned by the Nobel family, it has a similar selection process, but not “the same” and the nobel.org website posts information about the award because “Since 2006, Sveriges Riksbank has given the Nobel Foundation an annual grant of 6.5 million Swedish kronor (in January 2008, approx. US$1 million; 0.7 million Euro) for its administrative expenses associated with the prize as well as 1 million Swedish kronor (until the end of 2008) to include information about the prize in the Nobel Foundation’s internet webpage.[14]

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