On Entering the Canon: Who Wins the Nobel Memorial Prize?

Meanwhile, my department – along with some others, I suspect, – created a form for predicting the future Nobel Memorial Prize winner(s) in economics. In fact, it might be a good exercise for a sociologist of the economics profession (although a bit too narrow one).
     Who will get the Nobel? Many think of Olivier Blanchard (as Web of Science does) – and indeed, Blanchard might be easily confused with those who already got the Nobel long ago, leaving us puzzled that he is still not among them. It will be an interesting twist if Paul Romer gets the prize (recall his recent devastating critique of macroeconomics, as well as previous ones). From the older generation people like Martin Feldstein seem to be overlooked. All these scholars are known for their penchant for ‘macroeconomic’ issues  – whatever this means today (and the last ‘macroeconomic’ Prize winner was Thomas Sargent in 2011).
     Anyway, the intrigue is still present, since the result can often be unexpected (as it was the case, say, with Elinor Ostrom or could have been, for some, with Maurice Allais or James Buchanan). Current priorities, despite the fact that one gives the Prize for the work done long ago, still might play a role – thus juxtaposing the past economic science and the ever growing complexity of the present one. Multiple winners are also possible and ubiquitous, and here we might get most striking combinations interweaving times, schools and sub-disciplines. One could, for example, pull together Elhanan Helpman, Avinash Dixit and Marc Melitz as theorists of international trade, Philippe Aghion, Peter Howitt and Robert Barro as economic growth giants (oops, no Romer and too much Harvard here), or William Easterly and Robert Townsend as classics in ‘economic development’. A more  interdisciplinary – but less probable – perspective would involve Harold Demsetz and Richard Posner as ‘institutionalists’ and, of course, people like H. Peyton Young and W. Brian Arthur or Ernst Fehr (to my mind, Fehr should at some point get the Prize by all conceivable standards) or even Samuel Bowles/Herbert Gintis (with Robert Axelrod as another disciplinary counterpart to Ostrom), many of them could be also paired with the  previously nominated William Baumol or Israel Kirzner. I know much less about econometricians, perhaps those who know more could give their suggestions.
    But this is still a game. What would interest me a lot (and what, as far as I know, is only partly touched upon in the new book by Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg – which nonetheless should be fascinating) is the internal mechanics and tensions of the selection process, the struggles behind the nominations and their evaluation, and the techniques of compiling Nobel press releases and «scientific backgrounds». We will never learn the ’true’ story, but we have to come closer to it, because this kind of historical/sociological inquiry might be at least as instructive for understanding the dynamics of economic knowledge as the exercise in prediction.

The Tale of Three Universalisms, or How Mainstream Economics Meets Analytical Philosophy, They Both Roll Up Sleeves and Get to Work

Some time ago, in a conversation, a colleague of mine referred to John McCumber’s book «Time in the Ditch» and I saw the reference to the same book in Roy Weintraub’s recent text on McCarthyism and the mathematization of economics. This coincidence – and the fact that I had known McCumber before as an important Hegel scholar – made me look more closely at the topic I’ve been brooding about since quite a while. Yes, we know, after the work of Phil Mirowski and Sonja Amadae, that Cold war mattered for American economics in pushing it closer to the ideal of a ‘hard science.’ Well, somehow, almost simultaneously, in the beginning of the 2000s, McCumber told us that American philosophy had also been made more scientific in response to Cold war challenges. My claim here does not bear directly on Weintraub’s argument (that the influence of McCarthyism on the research practices of economists has been exaggerated and is not really supported by the evidence), but rather invites to reflect on the more general affinities between mainstream economics and analytical philosophy prompted by this historical research.

The analogies (noted once to me by Eric Schliesser and, as far as I know, never really thematized – but I would be most grateful for any references) do matter for me both historically (as parallels in what was happening in – largely Anglo-American – philosophy and economics in the last century) and systematically (in teaching us what kind of knowledge mainstream economics and analytical philosophy were and, to some extent, continue to be).

Meanwhile, along with and after McCumber’s book, a number of important studies emerged – such as Steve Fuller’s portrayal of Thomas Kuhn as a Cold warrior; George Reisch’s analysis of the formalization happening in the postwar American philosophy of science; or Joel Isaac’s detailed and fascinating story of Donald Davidson’s entanglement with Patrick Suppes and other economists and decision theorists. Philosophy, along with behavioral sciences, economics, and operations research, has thus taken its place in the thick historical narratives documenting the shift to a more applied (but not pragmatist!) and, at the same time, more formalized, rule-based, algorithmically oriented kind of knowledge. This shift involved, among many other things, the move away from humanities (broadly conceived) in search for transparent and universally comparable knowledge regime following a ‘tool shock’ (Isaac, again).

Now, is there any sense in juxtaposing analytical philosophy and mainstream economics? Apart from some obvious thematic overlaps – such as, in the case of Davidson and Suppes, value and action theory – there are general aspects worth thinking about. I would tentatively call them three universalisms and I’d abstain, on purpose, from any strict separation between internalist and externalist perspectives. Of course one can find a lot, a lot of counterexamples, but what I sketch here are just general tendencies, to be beaten only by equally general and more plausible ones. It’s not a comprehensive history, it’s a perspective that might help illuminate the history and sociology of the economics and philosophy professions.

The first kind of universalism is fairly obvious: both disciplines value universal knowledge, they clearly prefer generalizations over historical situatedness, abstraction over the entanglement into cultural contexts, and formalized reproducible truths supported by the hard data over the relativisms of interpretation. One could elaborate, but I’d just leave it here.

The second universalism is mostly rhetorical, and perhaps could be found in other disciplines, too. It consists in colonizing the words and continuously reproducing the pars pro toto trope, with certain type of economics suddenly becoming the whole of economics, with certain type of philosophy suddenly representing the whole of philosophy (even Isaac could not avoid this), and with an extremely tough and protective boundary work (see, e.g., Tiago’s important paper on that).

The third universalism consists in a democratic and inclusive nature of both communities. We know it can be a spurious effect, we know that status and prestige play a role everywhere in the academia, and still, in contrast with heterodoxy and continental philosophy very much centered around ‘big’ figures, dead or alive, we cannot ignore the salience of the collective and collaborative nature of the profession on the other side (just think of the increasing population of Daron Acemoglu’s co-authors). In mainstream economics and analytical philosophy, the thinkers and poetic geniuses make way ‘to humble, competent people, on a level with dentists,’ most problems are technical, and the solutions are near at hand. But this makes any exception, any unusual constellation, any identity shift even more interesting, both sociologically and in terms of intellectual history.