Next weekend, some young American economist will win the John Bates Clark Medal. The prize has been awarded every second year since 1947 by the American Economic Association to the researcher who is “judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge” before the age of 40. (The European Economic Association has begun a counterpart award, the Yrjö Jahnsson Prize.)
Starting next year, the AEA will award its medal annually. No more claiming that the Clark Medal is more valuable than a Nobel Prize because it’s twice as scarce!
But suppose the prize had been awarded annually from the very beginning? Then we would have known twice as many interesting economists from a relatively early age – but who? Hence the idea of a hindcast, a backwards look at who might have won in the even-numbered years if the rules had been different.
There are several ways to do this. One is the historian’s way, to painstakingly try to pry out the committee’s lists, to recreate the jury room arguments. But the counterfactuals quickly spin out of control because any awards committee must always think ahead.
Another method would be to attempt to gauge the award’s success over the years in anticipating the constantly-shifting judgment of history, a very complicated effort involving citation counts and the opinions of other prize-givers, both ex ante and ex post, using the guidelines created thereby to generate a second list.
The alternative is journalism: pay lip service to the sanctity of the electoral college, report until deadline, and make educated guesses. The idea is to start interesting conversations.
Herewith, then, one such a preliminary hindcast, based on a number of conversations with some of those involved one way or the other over the years, a first rough draft of (counterfactual) history. The more recent choices are the more difficult ones. Where it’s hard to make a confident case, very recently and long ago, I have left the matter open.
2008 John List, Chicago
2007 Susan Athey, 37, Harvard
2006 Edward Glaeser, 39, Harvard
2005 Daron Acemoglu, 38, MIT
2003 Steven Levitt, 36,
2002 Michael Kremer, Harvard
2001 Matthew Rabin, Berkeley
1999 Andrei Shleifer, 38, Harvard
1997 Kevin M. Murphy, Chicago
1996 Drew Fudenberg, 39, Harvard
1995 David Card, Berkeley
1994 Paul Romer, 39,
1992 Jean Tirole, 39, MIT
1991 Paul Krugman, 38, MIT
1990 Lars Peter Hansen, 38,
1989 David Kreps, 39, Stanford GSB
1986 Oliver Hart, 38, MIT
1985 Jerry Hausman, 39, MIT
1984 John Taylor, 38, Stanford
1983 James Heckman, 39,
1982 Thomas Sargent, 39,
1981 A. Michael Spence, 38, Harvard
1980 Andreu Mas-Colell, 36, Harvard
1979 Joseph Stiglitz, 36,
1978 Peter Diamond, 38, MIT
1977 Martin Feldstein, 38, Harvard
1976 Sherwin Rosen, 38,
1975 Daniel McFadden, 38,
1974 Robert Lucas, 37,
1972 Edmund Phelps, 39,
1971 Dale Jorgenson, 38, Harvard
1970 Robert Mundell, 38,
1969 Marc Nerlove, 36,
1968 Herbert Scarf, 38, Yale
1967 Gary Becker, 37,
1966 John Meyer, 39, Harvard
1965 Zvi Griliches, 35,
1964 Robert Clower, 38, Northwestern
1963 Hendrik Houthakker, 39, Harvard
1962 John Chipman, 36,
1961 Robert Solow, 37, MIT
1960 William Baumol, 38,
1959 Laurence Klein, 39,
1958 Lionel McKenzie, 39,
1957 Kenneth Arrow, 36, Stanford
1956 Leonid Hurwicz. 39,
1955 James Tobin, 37, Yale
1953 No award
1951 Milton Friedman, 39,
1950 George Stigler, 39,
1949 Kenneth Boulding, 39,
1948 Tjalling Koopman, 38,
1947 Paul A. Samuelson, 32, MIT
Legend has it that in the councils of those who created the award sentiment at first was strong to give the prize at 35, to underscore the conviction that truly new directions in economics are almost always charted by the young. Theodore Schultz (not Henry Schultz, at reported earlier, the pioneering econometrician who died in 1939), of the University of Chicago, argued successfully that empiricists couldn’t hope to make their impact felt before they had worked for at least twelve or fifteen years. So the fortieth birthday became the cut-off date. (The No Cigar list illustrates just how inflexible that date can be: Paul Milgrom, of Stanford, may have been more famous for auction theory in 1988 than Nancy Stokey, but he was born a year too late to qualify that year.)
Has the award worked as its founders hoped it might? It is hard not to admire the association’s consistency over sixty years in choosing economists who, in the second half of their careers, become emblematic of the profession’s concerns. On the other hand, there are already half as many Nobel Prize winners among No Cigar designees (six) as on the Clark Medal list. What emerges from an exercise like this one is how many deeply interesting contributors to our understanding of our economic life are missing from both lists.
Still, the profession will be a marginally gentler place, with the quantity of rent to fame about to double. The competition has occasionally grown so rambunctious that some economists have taken to concealing their birthdates to sidestep the inside talk. The rest of us, too, will be better off thanks to the decision. Henceforth economics will be perhaps a little less a gerontocracy than it has been, at least since the first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1969 – a small but admirable reform stemming from the leadership of incoming AEA president Robert Hall, of Stanford, who didn’t win the Clark Medal in 1981.