Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Sowell Nobel?

There is less than a week to go before the Economics Nobel Prize. 

Dear Nobel Committee: How can you not give the prize to Tom Sowell this year? 

Tom's work evidently merits a Nobel purely as a contribution to economics, covering many issues. But we can't ignore what year it is, and what's going on in the world. Indeed, in the Physics and Chemistry prizes this year, as well as Nordhaus' climate-economics Nobel, the Prize committees show they care about research that applies to hot-button problems. Race is a screaming issue of our time. How can you not give the prize to the living economist who has written the most penetrating economic analysis of race? 

Oh, yes, he's free-market, and thus characterized as conservative. His deeply fact-based research is  uncomfortable to The Narrative. For example, groups that white people cannot tell apart have profoundly different outcomes in the US. Nigerian immigrants are among the highest achieving ethnic groups in the US. West Indians do well. Asians of different waves of immigration and different countries -- Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese -- show profound differences. Tom has thousands of such facts, impeccably documented. 

But you're the Nobel Committee. You care about Science, not about cheers from the Davos crowd. You care about issues that are important, as you should, but you do not care about embracing one or the other political narrative's answers to those questions. You care about the reputation of your Prize, for courageously recognizing great research, even if its surprising conclusions upset established orders. And, to your credit, you have given the prize to economists of widely different political enthusiasms through the years.  

You're not, say, the American Economics Association, whose  statement from the American Economic Association Executive Committee, still up on its website, and referenced in mandatory DEI training, reads 

We encourage all economists to seek out existing scholarship on race, stratification economics, and related topics. To get us started, our AEASP and CSMGEP colleagues and students are compiling a reading list on racism and the experience of Black Americans. Members of the AEA Executive Committee have pledged to continue to educate themselves in part by reading works from the list and to seek to integrate work by diverse authors in course syllabi, and we ask all economists to make the same pledge.

The officially-endorsed reading list, though updated, to this day brazenly omits Sowell. Or Walter Williams. Or Glenn Loury. Or Roland Fryer. (Committee, if you're looking for others to share the prize, here are some suggestions!) If  you must, as you sometimes do, you may shrink from controversy by pairing the prize, Hayek and Myrdal; Fama and Shiller. But give Tom the prize. 

Yes, Tom's work is empirical, neither full of equations of theory or econometrics. (Though Knowledge and Decisions is an excellent pice of theory.)  Tom writes books. Well, maybe it's time to celebrate persuasive fact-based books as well as the more standard approaches, as you also have done in the past. 

While Tom is hardy, he is 91. None of us last forever. Nor does your opportunity to recognize one of the most important economists of our time. This is the year. 

********

Update: If you don't know Tom, and don't want to face an overwhelming volume of primary sources, his Wikipedia page is not bad. Twitter commenters complain that he appears on Fox News. Well, Paul Krugman appears in the New York Times. Within a respectable range, really, we need to start keeping political commentary separate from scientific contribution, like other hobbies. 

37 comments:

  1. I think it is almost impossible because Tom's work is not very technical and when was the last non-technical nobel in economics?

    They probably they will give the nobel to Kyotaki-Moore.

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  2. A prize for Sowell would indeed be refreshing, for the reasons that you give. It's hard to hope very strongly for such an outcome, given what we know about committees that currently lead the Economics profession - such as the AEA committees that you mention. Scholars who challenge their outlook quickly run into difficulties, as Roland Fryer did. I'm not aware of any scandals involving Sowell, but I also can't see leaders of the profession giving him a prize, and thereby undermining their own narratives.

    When trying to predict these prizes, I go back to the logic used to establish them - an effort to legitimize Economics as a science, to serve as the basis for technocratic governance. We could make a case for Sowell as worthy participant in this enterprise - as you do. But I'd expect more recognition for Econometrics in the near future. A metrics prize that "intersects" with hot button labor economics questions (like the gender pay gap) would be especially welcome amongst the woke, who seem to be ascendent. That would be the least surprising choice this year, for me at least.

    I know little about Kyotaki-Moore (mentioned in above comment) but I'm sure that there are others due for recognition for academic contributions to monetary economics - I see John Taylor mentioned now and then. I don't know if Michael Woodford is also considered a likely candidate, but it would be a return to the roots of the prize: recognizing a scientific basis for central banking.

    Whatever happens, I'll be sure to pop on social media to look over reactions to the prize. In any case, Sowell is the people's champ, at least in this corner of the blogosphere!

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  3. Great post! I wish I had thought of that.

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  4. I don't think this will be welcome, even if Sowell was prolific and produced an ample body of careful empirical analysis, as well as a few deeper theoretical works. For better or for worse, our profession tends to reward technique over substance and Sowell unfortunately pairs an unusual body of work that is literate and overlaps somewhere between sociology ad economics to some degree with opinions that upset the establishment. Many economists seem to conflate social justice with the narrow-minded views of a handful of people who happen to be popular at the moment, to the great detriment of debates that could otherwise be deep and fruitful.

    Still, I agree that Sowell did a lot for economics and public policy debates -- and that complement comes from someone who is vested into technical details.

    But, if I can nominate someone else informally, I would pick Peter C.B. Phillips. The man has done enough crucial work on time series econometrics to earn tenure about 10 times over in any of the big departments and you cannot even imagine empirical work in macroeconomics or even financial economics without his work -- he has over 100K references on Google Scholar for a reason.

    I mean, if you're going to think about impact, Phillips is very high on the list.

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  5. I would love to see Tom get the prize. On the other hand, I would like to see more careful cost/benefit analysis in the climate change space. Somehow I doubt I will get to see either.

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    1. Nobel for cost analysis of climate change has been granted just a few years ago.

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    2. Sadly, I suspect you're right.

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  6. When I was in grad school, I kept hearing two names were locks for the prize one day. Romer and Acemoglu. Since one has gotten it by now, my default prediction is on the other.

    I would love for Sowell to win, but as others have already mentioned, his work is neither deeply theoretical nor deeply empirical ( in the James Heckman sense).

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  7. Do people consider Amartya Sen’s work technical? Or did he win it for being a good guy that wrote popular books?

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  8. Thomas Sowell certainly deserves this award. I read everything he writes and trust every thing he says.

    Frank Metts Jr
    President
    WFM

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  9. What does it mean to dismiss Thomas Sowell as "not empirical"? All of macroeconomic statistics are economic history, so when Thomas Sowell carefully documents the historical facts of migrations and specializations of cultural accomplishment in his several "non-speculative" books, why is he not "empirical"? Is history not useful if not from some statistical model?

    In his "speculative books," I would start with "A Conflict of Visions," which investigates a pattern he sees in famous thinkers from the past. This analysis continues as he writes more expository books about intellectuals and their modes of thinking.

    A Nobel Prize for sure!

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    1. I think there is a sense of...does this academic advance the science. And by advance, I mean create some lasting innovation. Engle created ARCh(along with Bolersev), Hansen created GMM, Simms popularized VARs, etc etc.

      Sadly, they don't give awards for doing insightful data analysis.

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  10. Nailed it. Sowell for the Prize.

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  11. More prizes awarded by different institutions, as Milton Friedman stated upon receiving his Nobel prize, would help get the incentives and the rewards better.

    To make that happen, we need more Assar Lindbecks.

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  12. I agree with everything said here and also like Tom's work. I do have to say that arguing "discrimination is in vogue" is somewhat U.S.-centric. Discrimination is not as hot an issue in Europe this year. It is certainly NOT a hot issue in much of Asia. (I don't know enough about the other continents to make a statement)

    The Nobel prize is supposed to serve the world. Therefore, while climate change is a hot issue everywhere (I think), discrimination isn't.

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    1. We know what Alfred Nobel wanted to achieve with his prize, as his intentions were spelled out when he established the award. The Rijksbank seems to have somewhat different aims. They mention the desire to recognize "work of outstanding importance". Thus we might think of Peter C.B. Phillips (mentioned by Stephane above) having a massive impact on academic work, as meeting their criterion. Likewise with the influence of John Taylor on central banking research and practice.

      What would they think of someone like Thomas Sowell? He is valuable as a participant in public policy discussion, but we can see even here that the assessments of his thinking are quite diverse. Some - like Prof. Cochrane - would deem it of immense importance. But it's not clear that an academic committee would reach a consensus on that view.

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  13. Anyone so blind as to continually defend Trump as not being racist, does not get my vote.

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    1. I let this through as a great example of exactly what is wrong with our society, and increasingly with Science. Tom Sowell's opinion on whether "Trump is a racist," whatever that means, has nothing to do with the merit of his contributions to economics. Twitterers say he can't get a prize because he appears on Fox News. Would you have others denied a prize because they go on MSNBC to defend Biden as not being socialist? This is pure cancel culture, and the sooner we stop it the better. Plus you hide behind anonymity. Usually I delete drivel like this.

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    2. Sorry for your need to diminish those who don't agree with you. I believe what Tom Sowell said in a Public forum is open for criticism. His contributions to Economics are thoroughly entwined with social theory and are fair game.



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    3. John is not the one diminishing those who disagree with him here, but the original poster. The suggestion that a prolific scholar’s academic work should be dismissed from consideration because he holds a different view on the meaning of racism is inimical to a free society.

      It should go without saying, but Thomas Sowell lived through Jim Crow as a black man and is entitled to his own opinion on this issue.

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    4. By the Anonymous argument, Krugman should have never have received the Nobel Prize given that his columns are often cringe worthy by anyone who hasn't drunk the progressive kool-aid.

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  14. Giving Dr. Sowell the prize would be fantastic. Basic economics and Knowledge and decisions should be required reading for every college freshman so they can begin to learn to think. Thanks for putting this forward.

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  15. Does Thomas Sowell need the recognition or award that stems fm money made fm killing???? There many times brilliant minds that have refused the award by the Nobel committee, the monicker of Alfred Noble - Merchant of Death still rings in my mind…. As time goes by Prof Sowell will shine through out the world as one of the foremost Thinker of the 20th Century in Economics purely based on statistical findings….

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  16. The Nobel prize usually makes me discover an economist, not the other way around... It does not make me optimistic for Sowell.

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  17. Sowell's book, A Conflict of Visions, is his biggest contribution, I think. It really is useful in understanding how people think. The Constrained Vision is the economist's, and shows how deep economics really is as a paradigm.

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  18. "But you're the Nobel Committee. You care about Science, not about cheers from the Davos crowd." I'm skeptical if not cynical. Gene Fama's work is grounded in empirical and theoretical science. It took the Nobel committee some 40 years to recognize his seminal work in portfolio theory, asset pricing and the EMH before awarding him the prize in economic sciences in 2013. I'm not optimistic about Sowell's chances.

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  19. Bravo Mr. Cochrane. I believe Dr. Sowell is The Greatest Intellectual of our time. I find it ironic that he is so easily ignored.

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  20. Great Idea. I'm an ex-journalist, a libertarian one, but unlike 99 percent of my former colleagues I could at least recognize a supply and demand curve. I recognized Thomas Sowell's greatness early on and met him in the early 1980s at the LA Times, then again in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, and then I interviewed him a couple of times for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review in the 2000s. Here's a link to the great man, who if the world was run correctly, would win the Nobel for his life's work -- and his courage. https://clips.substack.com/p/qa-thomas-sowell-our-great-economist-emeritus

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  21. The Nobel prize is less respected than it used to be. Obviously the committee is pushing left progressive agenda, global warming, equality, immigration, identity.

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  22. Thank you for this blog. It shows how far from reality we have gotten. It is astounding that the recipients this year did what Tom has been doing for more than half a century. On the other side of the discussion, I doubt Dr. Sowell would assign much value to the honour. Perhaps something around his estimate of the value of a Harvard degree.

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  23. "The officially-endorsed reading list, though updated ..."

    Does this mean the link is to the improved version? Or is it still being improved?

    OMG

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  24. There is a mammoth adversity to Sowell in this field. Many professionals argue "he doesn't publish proper scientific works, therefore he is a pundit", or "his ideas are antiquated by the new econ science". Well, yes he does not publish proper scientific papers, but any keen reader of his work can see he is one of the greatest social thinkers of 20th and 21st century. The man is brilliant. You can argue that "he earned his PhD in the 50s, so he's outdated"- an argument I have actually seen - all you want. But you can't deny his intelligence and importance. If the mainstream was not so perverse, I could see Sowell as being the most impactful economist of the latter 20th century, due to his sheer number of quality titles.

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  25. Economics needs to move beyond econometric models to integrate abd social problems that arise out of the allocation of scarce resources. North said institutions matter and they do for they construct an option set that all economic agents (people) can choose from or reject them altogether and pay the price.

    It's not just about incentives, but who those incentives are assigned to. Look no farther to the unfortunate reality, quoted from a Labor Econimics textbook out of Cornell: "Blacks are the last to be hired and first to be fired." Why? Part of it has to do with employers knowing their customer's preferences who they want to interface with.

    So while institutions matter, so do preferences. Understanding the nature of desire is important. Economics has hit a wall in my view. I love the discipline, but integrating mental health, psychology, attachment theory, and how it relates to the formation of social capital I believe in my mind that Economics can truly serve the people in the right way.

    So, yes, Sowell deserves at least some serious consideration. Economics cannot be a practice that is hermetically sealed from other disciplines that can contribute to the common good. Otherwise, what are we doing?

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  26. A couple of points in clarification: (1) the nomination process is limited to select individuals in select institutions and the process starts in the year prior to the year of announcement of the committee's selection, (2) the nominees names and associated institutions are kept secret for fifty years, and, (3) the prize is not a Nobel Prize--i.e., it was not set up by Alfred Nobel's will and last testament.

    The prize in economics is not limited to economists--it is available for award to any notable researcher or scientist in the social sciences.

    As the lists of nominees are impounded for 50 years, it is not possible to determine the basis or bases used to select the winining nominee(s).

    The tenure of committee members is three years. Previously, the tenure was longer, but in response to criticism of the selection committee for awarding the prize in economics , first, to Hayek and, secondly, to Friedman, pressure was put on the sponsors to reduce the length of time that any one member of the committee could remain on the committee.

    A popular appeal would not be considered by the committee. If T. Sowell was not nominated through the established nomination process by the selected nominating institutions, he would not have been considered for the prize. Given that the prize is not a Nobel Prize, it gains prestige only through the association with the announcement and presentation of Nobel Prizes. Absent the association, would the prize be notable and worth the candle? I shouldn't think so.

    T. Sowell has not lost anything by not being named this year's recipient of the prize for economics. His photography won't suffer for it; his works will not be lessened by it.

    Sean-shĂșil Iolair

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  27. I like how you capitalize S in "Science". Agree, Sowell is a living treasure but a man for whom the committee doesn't want to highlight. BTW, huge fan of your work at Hoover and enjoy your vids with the other Grumpy guys. Please don't stop.

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