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The Economics Nobel Isn’t Really A Nobel

UPDATE (Oct. 10, 8 a.m.): The winners of the 2016 Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel are Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom, “for their contributions to contract theory.” Hart is British and is affiliated with Harvard; Holmstrom is Finnish and is affiliated with MIT.

The typical winner of the Nobel in economics is a 67-year-old man, born in the United States, who is working at the University of Chicago when he wins.

I’ve been looking at the typical characteristics of winners of the various prizes; here’s what I found for physiology/medicine, physics, chemistry and peace so far.1 The economics award is expected to be announced Monday.

But, technically, there is no Nobel Prize in economics.2 Instead, there is the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. It was first awarded in 1969 and is named not after a person, but after the central bank of Sweden — the Sveriges Riksbank — which funds it. The Nobel Foundation doesn’t pay out the award or choose the winner (though the winner is chosen in accordance with the same principles used by the Nobel Foundation), but it does list the prize on its website along with the Nobels, tracks winners the same as Nobel laureates, and even promotes the prize alongside its own. Members of the Nobel family have spoken out against the award.

So why does it exist? Notre Dame historian Philip Mirowski has found evidence that the economics award grew out of Swedish domestic politics. According to Mirowski, in the 1960s, the Bank of Sweden was trying to free itself from government oversight and become independent. One way to do that was to frame economics as purely scientific, rather than political — in which case, government interference could only hurt the bank. Having a Nobel Prize boosted economics’ scientific street cred. And Mirowski isn’t the only academic who is skeptical of whether there should be a Nobel-associated economics prize. Friedrich von Hayek, who won the award in 1974, used his Nobel Banquet speech to critique the prize.3 “The Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess,” Hayek said. He worried that the prize would influence journalists, the public and politicians to accept certain theories as gospel — and enshrine them in law — without understanding that those ideas have a different level of uncertainty than, say, gravity or the mechanics of a human knee.


  1. We pulled data from the website of the Nobel Foundation, which has fact pages for each winner, and we focused on age at the time of winning, sex of the winners, their country of birth and their primary institutional affiliation at the time the prize was won (some had additional affiliations that we did not count). When multiple people shared a Nobel, we counted all the winners equally. Age is averaged. For the other stats, “typical” means “winningest.”

  2. And, as we all know, technically correct is the BEST kind of correct.

  3. Hayek is also one of two economics winners to not have an institutional affiliation at the time of his win. He and co-winner Gunnar Myrdal were in their late 70s and functionally retired when they won. That said, it’s also interesting to note that the oldest winner, Leonid Hurwicz, who was 90 when he won in 2007, was still on the payroll at the University of Minnesota at the time. Retirement is weird in academia.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.


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