Nobel art of being a man

Lives of the Laureates
September 24, 2004

Richard Lambert looks at what unites the world's great economists.

Four qualities are necessary if you want to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. First, you must be an American - or if you cannot manage that, you should at least study in the US. Since 1990, 26 prizes have been awarded (there has been more than one winner in most years): of these, 17 went to people who were born in the US, and only three winners were affiliated to universities outside America.

Second, and even more important, you must be a man. Not one winner since the prize was established in 1968 has been a woman, and it is probably fair to say that only the late Joan Robinson came close to selection.

Third, serendipity plays a part. Very few people start out in life with the dream of being a great economist. Most of the 18 winners whose autobiographical essays are featured in the latest edition of Lives of the Laureates say they fell into the discipline more or less by accident, usually under the influence of a charismatic teacher or some other mentor.

Milton Friedman nearly became a mathematician; Arthur Lewis confesses that "I became an economist when I really wanted to be an engineer, became a university teacher because there was nothing else for me to do, and became an applied economist because that was my mentor's subject."

A common theme is the critical importance of stumbling, often by chance, into a group of lively and engaged colleagues. Economics, writes George Stigler, "is a science in which it is difficult to do creative work if one is not in a congenial intellectual environment". Or in James Heckman's words: "The practice of economics is a social activity greatly affected by the environment in which one works. Feedback, stimulation and encouragement are central to this activity."

Fourth, you need to be seriously clever, and a bucketful of self-confidence also helps. Writing of himself in the third person, Paul Samuelson observes: "Every honor he aspired to came his way, and came early." And elsewhere: "I can claim that in talking about modern economics, I am talking about me. My finger has been in every pie."

Most of these qualities are linked. Talent attracts talent in all intellectual disciplines, and this appears to be overwhelmingly true in economics. Writing his essay in 1985, Friedman noted rather smugly that, of the 12 Americans who had won the prize by that time, nine had either studied or taught at the University of Chicago. Other institutions have come to greater prominence since then, but the prizewinners are still largely concentrated in a small number of universities. The picture is very different on this side of the Atlantic, where relatively few British students now take PhDs in economics at UK universities. This country no longer provides fertile soil for future laureates.

The strong intellectual networks described by all the essayists appear to have almost no place for women. A number of supportive wives feature in these stories, and even more ambitious mothers. But hardly any female economists are mentioned in the dozens of colleagues whose contributions to the great men's work are gratefully acknowledged. Rose Friedman is an exception, but then she is married to Milton.

One possible explanation for the lack of women is the exclusive culture of the prizewinning university departments. As described in most of the essays, these are strong networks made up almost entirely of men from different backgrounds but with very similar interests, lifestyles and career objectives. Another possibility, advanced elsewhere by John Kay, may lie in the nature of the subject itself. Traditional economic theory is built around the world of rational economic man (never woman, even in the most politically correct of classrooms.) In Kay's words, "rational economic man - self-absorbed, calculating, maximising - is recognisably a male stereotype."

Whatever the reason, the gender bias runs right across the discipline, starting at school, where a disproportionate number of A-level students are male.

The idea of the book is to shed light on whether excellent work in economics is a reflection of the lives of those who produced it. Some common themes emerge. One is that the best economists want to make the world a better place, or at least to understand its problems. For the older generation of laureates, people such as Samuelson and James Tobin, the Great Depression was what first triggered an interest in economics. The desire for relevance, especially with respect to social issues, remains important. Gary Becker learnt from Friedman to see "economics as a tool and not simply as a game played by clever academics". For him, it provided a platform from which to consider a range of issues such as discrimination, education and questions about the family.

In a discipline that is becoming increasingly technical in nature, it is good to be reminded that the very best economists, in the words of Tobin, "have taken their subjects from the world around them". Or, as Robert Solow puts it: "The economist cannot dispense with keeping his or her eyes open, looking around and forming judgements about what makes sense and what is simply far-fetched. Those cannot be uncritical judgements, but judgements to be defended by appeal to observation and logic."

All of the laureates were asked to describe their intellectual contribution in words that would be accessible to a lay audience. Some do it better than others. But not the least of this book's attractions is that it provides a short and clear account of a dozen of the big ideas in economics over the past 60 years.

Richard Lambert is a member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee and was formerly editor of The Financial Times .

Lives of the Laureates: Eighteen Nobel Economists

Editor - William Breit and Barry T. Hirsch
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 351
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 262 02562 0

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