Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

The winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences will be announced on Monday, October 10.  Unlike many economists, I do not care the least who wins the prize.  I don't have any beef with the recipients of the Nobel Prize in economics, and I count one of them, Finn Kydland, as a friend.  I just don't think that the prize in economics really stacks up against the prizes given in other areas, especially those in physics, medicine, and chemistry.

I was really struck by this last year, and to verify that I wasn't just in a bad mood a year ago, I re-read the descriptions of the prizes in the NY Times.  Which one of the following 2010 prizes seems out of place in terms of their effect on the human condition?
Physics: To the developers of graphene, which "is not only the thinnest material in the world, but also one of the strongest and hardest. ... Physicists say that it could eventually rival silicon as a basis for computer chips, serve as a sensitive pollution-monitoring material, improve flat-screen televisions, and enable the creation of new materials and novel tests of quantum weirdness."

Medicine: To the developer of in vitro fertilization, a "procedure (that) overcomes many previously untreatable causes of infertility and is used in 3 percent of all live births in developed countries."

Chemistry:  For "developing techniques to synthesize complex carbon molecules that have had an enormous impact on the manufacture of medicines and other products." “They are used almost continually by every major pharmaceutical company on a daily basis, from drug discovery through manufacturing,” said Stephen L. Buchwald, a professor of chemistry at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. “They basically revolutionized the industry.”
Economics: For "work on markets where buyers and sellers have difficulty finding each other....  These researchers’ explanation addresses the complications that come from searching for jobs and job candidates: it takes time for unemployed workers to be matched with the proper opening, since people are not identical, cookie-cutter units, and neither are jobs."
Maybe I have a jaded view of economics because I'm looking at it from the inside, but it seems to me that winning the economics prize means that you have helped other economists to understand the economy or to build their models, but you have had very little effect on the economy itself.  On the other hand, winning in physics, medicine, or chemistry means that you have saved, improved, or allowed the creation of millions of lives.