Monday, October 3, 2022

Sowell Nobel Redux

Nobel Prize season is around the corner. Last year, I blogged in favor of Tom Sowell. I update, with some edits. 

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. Race is a forefront 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? 

Yes, he's a free-market economist, 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, about facts, about logic, 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.  

Why not? I grant, Tom's work is unusual. The Nobel Prize is, justly, conservative (that's praise in my vocabulary). Prizes prosper by widespread view that they are given to people who deserve them. Most (not all) Nobels in economics go to people who, if you ask around the faculty lunchrooms at the top economics department, are those who people would instantly mention. And rightly so. But that fact gives a bit of tilt toward methodological work. People in their productive 30s and 40s are likely to mention their mentors who gave them the tools to write the papers that got them where they are. It gives a bit of tilt toward people who produce a lot of graduate students.  Tom did not mentor an army of young assistant professors, nor did he invent a theoretical framework or econometric technique. He writes books, and taught us about how the world works. (Knowledge and Decisions is an excellent work of theory, but not an extendable mathematical framework.) 

But the Nobel isn't always like that, and does occasionally celebrate persuasive and important fact-based and logic-based books. Indeed, as I infer, the Prize occasionally makes a bit of a subtle point about what's important and what kind of work the rest of us might do. That Tom's work is important, and his style of work is worth emulating is a useful point. And perhaps the committee is a bit aghast at the wokeness that is starting to infect even economics. 

For example, the American Economics Association, via its statement from the American Economic Association Executive Committee, has compiled an officially sanctioned  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 "ask all economists to make the same pledge." This list is in use at semi-mandatory  DEI training sessions, reportedly including the Federal Reserve. But this officially-endorsed reading list to this day brazenly omits Sowell. Or Walter Williams. Or Glenn Loury. Or Roland Fryer.  And here I am succumbing to racism that says the author's skin color matters to his or her or their conclusions. Or Gary Becker. Or Bob Fogel. Maybe the committee would like to say that Sowell and related work should be at least included on a comprehensive officially sanctioned reading list offered by an economics association. 

While Tom is hardy, he is 92. 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. 

Update: Well, they didn't give it to Tom, but Bernanke, Diamond, Dybvig is a fine prize for great work.

29 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more. I wouldn't hold my breath though. There is a case to be made that his work has avoided the use of ordinary least squares, multiple regression or other econometric tools, let alone charts and equations. Therefore his work should perhaps not be considered. I do not make this case and I think it is silly, even though I have heard it made by economists vastly superior to me (one of them is on your list). What he has done, particularly with Knowledge and Decisions, is make the field accessible. And he's used common sense to do so. This in itself is a thing of magic in my considered judgment. He won't be nominated. But many of us wouldn't need the prize to define the man's impact on how to think.

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  2. As an econ grad (B.S., Brigham Young University), I am still left speechless that the AEA would put out a reading list for its members recommending drivel like "White Fragility" and not include a single publication by Sowell.
    I hoped that there would be some level of significant pushback from within the AEA to such mind-numbingly stupid decision in subsequent years.
    It's a huge credibility hit for the AEA and, by extension, the whole field of Econ. I have a few friends pursuing Econ PhDs, one of which (currently studying at Cornell) I introduced to econ because I believed it largely to be an island of level-head thinking in the Social Science Sea of Insanity. Not sure if I would do the same if given a similar opportunity now.

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    1. Why are you surprised? The AEA is no longer an Econ Association. It is a social engineering association. The AEA is no longer about opportunity costs, incentives, trade-offs - the usual stuff that economists used to care about. The AEA is now all about engineering a woke society, nothing else.

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  3. Thank you John. Thomas Sowell is an inspiration to many of us around the world.

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    1. Amen! Dr. Sowell is a national treasure.

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  4. It would be well deserved and there is at least one precedent for a Nobel who worked in the Sowell style - Gunnar Myrdal. But the economics Nobel goes to people who work in the zeitgeist, not against it eg the prizes 1990 to 1992 all went to free market Chicago types, following the end of the Cold War and the capitulation by central planners.

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    1. The Gunnar Myrdal Nobel was 1974 - and they gave it to Friedrich August von Hayek at the same time. It was a shared prize. Myrdal was an socialist, who thought that the economy should be managed by a small ruling elite. Hayek needs no introduction, he believed in liberty and free markets. Myrdal faded away, while Hayek still lives in many circles.

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  5. If Sowell were to win, Hell would be 0 Kelvin.

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  6. Just for writing "Knowledge and Decisions" is reason enough.

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  7. I hope you have sway.

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  8. The Nobel committee lost my respect when they handed out the peace prize to Obama. There are too many left economists on their top list. The chance of Sowell to win the economics prize is no better than Trump to win the peace prize.

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    1. and the Nobel Committee lost my respect with its award of last year's Economics prize

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    2. That isn't the same committee though

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  9. Great arguments! Thomas Sowell was one motivator to my persuit of my grad degree in economics. His logic, insight, and honest approach to data made economics an attractive career to me.

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  10. Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions" is a major contribution to social thought. In that masterly survey of intellectuals since the Enlightenment, he identifies a deep division in how serious analysts misunderstand top-down "designed" processes in society and economic affairs, versus the bottom-up "spontaneous" processes such as markets.
    If F.A. Hayek could receive the Economics Prize along with Gunnar Myrdal, Thomas Sowell has done vastly more comprehensive empirical investigations with his immigration and migration studies.

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  11. Thomas Sowell definitely deserves more credit than he gets, especially in academic circles. He has made a lot of efforts towards making his ideas readily accessible for public debate and that's something our profession doesn't sufficiently reward. I shared the post on Twitter, but I doubt all too many people will take it seriously -- which is a shame consider what is being taken seriously nowadays.

    That being said, there's one person I know everyone always overlooks and, I say it every year, but Peter CB Phillips basically invented a whole new set of methods and concepts to handle unit roots. He's the reason we can formally think about issues pertaining to the long run which is a fairly substantial contribution.

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  12. One thing about Sowell is that his work has held up over time. The Conflict of Visions is as worth reading now as it was when it was written. The point about methodology is good. I was wondering if all future prizes will be for econometrics. I hope we will come up with some good theories as well as good ways of analyzing data quantitatively.

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  13. Totally agree. Unfortunately, there's about as much chance of it happening as there is of me being voted World Bird of the Year 2022.

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  14. "... reading list on racism and the experience of Black Americans."

    Why is the word "black" capitalized in that passage, Dr. Cochrane? Doing that seems like a pre-emptive cringe before the woke mob.

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  15. The Nobel committee severely damaged its reputation for honesty and objectivity when it awarded Barack Obama a prize for doing absolutely nothing.

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  16. Thomas Sowell is a national treasure. Have been a fan for about 45 years after reading Basic Economics and have followed him ever since. Listen up Nobel Committee if you want to maintain relevance in today's world.

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  17. Black Rednecks and White Liberals was an eye opening book. I watched and listened to him anytime I could after reading that book. Brilliant. He deserves the Nobel Prize, but I won’t be holding my breath.

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  18. I have an idea. After being named a recipient, (I suggest a double award for economics and peace.), Dr. Sowell should send Candace Owens, (or Laura Loomer?) to refuse the award and do some righteous speechifying.

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  19. John, you are right. Sowell is fantastic. His books are absolute page turners.
    On a side note, It'd be amazing if you could get him on an episode of GoodFellows. I won't hold my breath though, I understand he's elderly and so forth.

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  20. "Nobel Prize in Economics Winners Include Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke
    Douglas Diamond, Philip H. Dybvig also recognized for research on banks and financial crises"--headline of the article in The Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2022.

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  21. I could not agree with you more.

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  22. So the distinguished economists who received this newest prize seem to be recognized for banking principles I believed I had learned a UChicago 60 years ago at "301 - Money and Banking." Of course, Bernanke had his opportunity to try "do something" different from the Fed of the 1930s.
    But I really prefer John Cochrane's idea of the directly-monetized fiscal impact (helicopter drop). When politicians panic, a Fed can hardly offset it without crushing the bond market. So, good example in the UK.
    We shall see the verdict of history in a decade.
    I would have preferred a prize focused on more mundane facts, like Sowell reports and explains in his life's work. Particularly his "Knowledge and Decisions." His Marxism book was fun to read, too.

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