Prize Season

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The Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, all good awards. Drill down to the other two finalists in each category and you glimpse how much additional good journalism continues being done despite the turbulence in the industry.  My favorite runners-up were the New York Times investigation of systemic medical radiation errors, the Wall Street Journal series on opportunities for industrial fraud in Medicare, and The Washington Post’s year-long exploration of how the military is using medical advances to reduce fatalities among the wounded. Newspapers, meet health care!

Two extremely strong series didn’t make the finals: The Washington Post’s stories of the enormous buildup of the US national security bureaucracy since 9/11, “Top Secret America,” and “What They Know,” the WSJ’s extensive investigation of Internet privacy issues. Chalk it up partly to the entry of strong new competitors to the fray, including Bloomberg News and ProPublica, a heavily-endowed digital start-up. Presumably Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the WSJ in 2007 had something to do with it, too, though editor Robert Thomson didn’t say so last week in a memo to his staff.

The prize for national reporting went to ProPublica staffers working under Paul Steiger, former WSJ managing editor. (It was the second Pulitzer award in two years for the online newsroom.) Granted, you can’t expect Thomson, an Australian who formerly edited the Times of London, to be welcomed right away by the inner councils of the tribe (he was profiled recently as “Murdoch’s Best Friend” by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker). And Paul Gigot, editor of the WSJ’s editorial page joined the Pulitzer board in 2007. But newspaper investigations don’t get much better than “Top Secret America” and “What They Know,” and there will be plenty of discussion this year of the Pulitzers’ jury system, the seven-member panels in the news categories that send finalist nominations to the eighteen-member board.

Indeed the strains of the current polarization of US political life were apparent in the selection of champions from competing Manhattan newspapers at opposite poles of the coverage of the health care debate. David Leonhardt, of the NYT, won the Commentary prize, and Joseph Rago, of the WSJ, was recognized for Editorial Writing.  A weekly columnist for the business page, Leonhardt writes frequently about the broad policies of the Obama administration, but he excels at covering health care. And Rago, whose editorials are unsigned, specializes in criticizing the administration’s health care initiative.  Competition is alive and well.

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Jonathan Levin, of Stanford University, was named winner of the John Bates Clark Medal on Friday, awarded annually by the American Economic Association to the best economist under the age of 40. From 1947 until 2009 it was given only every other year, before becoming an annual affair. Has making less scarce cost the award some of its prestige? It’s hard to tell. News of Levin’s award made the WSJ, and was covered much more extensively in its blog (bruiting it as a “baby-Nobel”), while the Times reported it only online. Levin’s father, Richard, also an economist, is president of Yale University.

Levin is an expert on the the economics of Internet markets, but his research has spanned industrial organization: health care, sub-prime lending, consumer credit, spectrum auctions, patents, incentive contracts. He has collaborated with Paul Milgrom, Jeremy Bulow and Susan Athey, among many others.  The Clark Award committee distinguished among three strands in his work: his curiosity about  how a desire to preserve long-term relationships gives rise to self-enforcing “relational” contracts among partners, whether they be firms, spouses, or entire nations; his part in demonstrating how differing auction rules employed by the government have affected competition in various industries; and his work on information break-downs in credit and insurance markets, in subprime lending in particular.

“This is fantastic news,” Bengt Holmstrom, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who supervised Levin’s dissertation, told the institute’s news office. “John’s great gift is in being able to see the essential in economic problems and work on them both theoretically and empirically. His contributions to game theory, especially auction theory and market design, have been academically influential and of great practical use.”

Levin is the third straight member from MIT’s graduating (PhD) class of 1999 to have won the Clark (the others were Esther Duflo, an MIT professor today, and Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California at Berkeley). In fact, MIT-trained economists have won eight of fourteen Clark Medals awarded in the last quarter century, beginning with Paul Krugman in 1991, Andrei Shleifer in 1999, Matthew Rabin in 2001, Steven Levitt in 2003 and Daron Acemoglu in 2005.

But the only Clark medalists among MIT faculty today are Acemoglu, Duflo and Jerry Hausman, who won in 1985. It is more a hunch than anything else, but MIT economists may have to make some dramatic changes in their hiring practices if they want to continue attracting the best students entering the profession, those with National Science Foundation fellowships. (This year’s crop will choose their programs next week.) The department’s alumni visiting committee, chaired by retired Merck executive vice president Judy Lewent, includes professors Dennis Carlton, Judith Chevalier, Avinash Dixit, Eric Maskin, Frederic Mishkin, Laura Tyson and Hal Varian, as well as a galaxy of star practitioners.

Meanwhile, the AEA also named four distinguished fellows (Alan Blinder and Daniel Kahneman, of Princeton University;  William Brainard, of Yale University; and David Wise, of Harvard University), as well as four foreign honorary members (Andrew Chesher, of University College London; Cypriot Christopher Pissarides, of the London School of Economics; Eytan Sheshinski, of Hebrew University; and Yoram Weiss, of Tel Aviv University.)