For the Good of the World, We Should Drop the Pulitzers and Faux-Nobels

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last week, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to Professors William Nordhaus and Paul Romer.  Nordhaus won for his work on the economics of climate change, Romer for studying how economic growth responds to the creation of knowledge.

I have nothing to say here about either economist or his work, although I might write something about one or both of them in the near future.  I should add that I am not ignoring them out of disrespect.  They seem like fine choices, within the confines of that prize.  But it is those confines that I want to address here, in large part to compare them to the limitations of another prestigious award, the Pulitzer Prize.

Longtime readers of this blog might recall that I am a stickler about calling the economics prize what it is (see the first line above) -- and not calling it what it is not: "The Nobel Prize in Economics."  My column on this subject from 2009 provides the facts on that score.  The bottom line is that it simply is inaccurate to call it an Economics Nobel, and the angry insistence by many economists that the difference is a mere technicality simply demonstrates how desperately they are trying to gain undeserved prestige by renaming their prize.

Although I often take economists to task for various reasons, a much more frequent target of my critical commentary has been the American press, especially what can still accurately be called the print media (although I have not read a printed physical newspaper in years).  Indeed, I have written so many negative things about the prestigious papers' news coverage that I had to take a step back this past summer and ask, "Is It Time to Ease Off On the Media Criticism?"  With Donald Trump calling a free press the enemy of the American people, it is important to remember that constructive criticism -- especially highly negative constructive criticism -- can feed into a dangerous narrative.

My goal here, therefore, is not to bash the press but to continue to point out that mainstream media types respond to perverse incentives.  And that can have very unfortunate effects in the real world -- effects that endanger the press itself and ultimately constitutional democracy.

The major problem with prestigious prizes is that they inevitably become insider affairs.  The most extreme version of this in economics was the case of a scholar who literally moved to Sweden to ingratiate himself with the members of the selection committee, but even without something so self-dealing (which, in that case, was actually successful), the fact is that the economics prize is never going to go to an outsider.

To some extent, of course, that is neither surprising nor necessarily negative.  My undergraduate institution was Vassar College, which is prestigious and hires economics professors from prestigious graduate schools; but it would be astonishing if a Vassar professor were ever to win the Sveriges Bank's prize.  Why?  If she were good enough to be considered for the most sought-after prize in her field, that professor would quickly be snatched up by one of the top departments.  The top departments thus replicate themselves by finding top talent and bringing them inside.

But this theory, of course, relies on the presumption that "top talent" is a knowable and meaningful category.  In a broad sense, it is, but distinguishing among the top several hundred or so economists in the world is at best arbitrary and at worst meaningless.  Paul Krugman (who won not only the Sveriges Bank prize but also the second most sought after prize, for the best economist under the age of 40) describes the insiders as part of a "floating craps game" where young economists prove themselves worthy by writing an impressive paper and are then accepted into the game by proving that they can do it two more times.  From then on, they are in the big time.

What makes a paper impressive enough?  In economics, it has long been almost exclusively a matter of mathematical/technical virtuosity, but the other requirement of the game is to be working on topics that other people think of as worthy.  Feminist economics?  Nah.  Game theory?  You bet.  Even when recognition goes to nontraditional work, it must be either more technically impressive or merely tweak an assumption within the unchallenged set of assumptions that other economists view as inviolable.

Consider the concept of power, as in economic power.  This past June, New York Times columnist (and former economics editor) David Leonhardt wrote a column discussing the consolidation of many industries, with a tiny number of huge firms dominating their markets.  This is easy to see, but it is difficult for economists to accept, both because of the belief that competition will always arise to take down unworthy giants and because it is so difficult to define and measure the concept of market power.

When I was in graduate school, the U.S. banking system was engaged in an early round of consolidation that had made the news.  Talking with one of my dissertation advisors, I said that I thought of that as a worrisome trend.  He responded: "I don't see what good it does to have a lot of banks with a lot of junior vice presidents running around replicating each others' efforts.  Consolidation is efficient."  I then asked whether it bothered him that the resulting mega-banks would be able to dominate the market and exercise power not only in the banking world but in politics, but he looked at me as if I were from outer space.  "What does 'dominate' even mean?  How would I measure 'power'?" he asked.

The point is that economists at elite institutions considered the very notion of power and dominance to be squishy and unscientific (which made it -- gulp -- "sociological").  The people who wanted to be taken seriously by insiders either had to agree to study other, safer topics (which almost all of them do) or to figure out a way to study power in a way that would not seem soft.

Professional incentives pushed them inexorably toward either conformity or very narrow and safe non-conformity, which meant that the economics profession sat idly by while the financial system became dominated by fewer and larger powerful players over the next few decades.  And the faux-Nobel is the inevitable expression (and driver) of those professional incentives.

Again, this is not to say that none of the Sveriges Bank's prizes have gone to worthy recipients.  My point is that only certain people are even in the running, and they are the ones who have made it to the top departments not by being "the best" in some Platonic sense but by being part of the insiders' conversation.

How does this work in journalism, where the real-world stakes are just as (if not more) important than the real-world stakes of economics?  There, the Pulitzer Prizes are the holy grail, and a Pulitzer is the first thing mentioned about any winner for the rest of her or his career.  But who wins?

It is first important to note that there are multiple Pulitzers given every year, with various types of journalism recognized, from investigative reporting to writing op-eds as well as many other categories.  And if ever there were a prize category that should be eliminated, it is the Pulitzer for op-ed writing.  This is insiderism on steroids.

Again, one could imagine that The New York Times and The Washington Post could play the roles of Harvard's and MIT's economics departments, luring the best of the best to join their ranks.  But that is clearly not happening.  There is no apparent set of criteria determining who will be given a coveted spot as a regular columnist, and once a person is in such a spot, it is rare indeed that they ever leave.  We thus end up with career mediocrities like Thomas Friedman and George Will being famous by virtue of having been famous for a long time.

And then there is the question of political slant.  Post columnist Kathleen Parker claimed that she won a Pulitzer essentially as a matter of ideological affirmative action, because she believes that she was a token conservative who could be trotted out to prove that the Liberal Media was not monolithic.  "Look, we even gave a conservative our big award!"

Sadly, Parker is at least right to indirectly acknowledge that there is no case to be made for her winning on the merits.  Not everything that she writes is wrong, but she is capable of writing astonishingly stupid and dishonest things.  There is no topic that she cannot mangle, misunderstanding even basic concepts of why healthy, young people should buy health insurance, just as one example.

But Parker is a Pulitzer Prize-winner, just as Maureen Dowd, Eugene Robinson, Bret Stephens, and Nicholas Kristof (along with the ubiquitous Friedman) all are.  I actually agree with much of what Dowd, Robinson, and Kristof write, but if they are the top of their field, then there is something wrong with their field.  Bestowing an impressive-sounding prize on such lightweights is, if nothing else, tantamount to false advertising.

What about the non-commentary Pulitzers?  Again, there are some very worthy winners, and I want to make a special mention of James Forman, Jr., now a professor at Yale with whom I took two seminars at Michigan Law School.  Forman's book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, won a very well deserved Pulitzer in general nonfiction earlier this year.

Getting back to journalism, however, the insider problem remains a big deal even on the news (non-commentary) side.  Again, the elite papers dominate the awards, but the presumption that the top papers hire the best people is again contestable, at best.  I have frequently called out nonsensical "news" stories about tax policy (see, e.g., here), but it is the political reporting that is galling for its continuing mindlessness, with false equivalence and both-sidesism dominating the scene.

A Post article last year gave away part of the game, saying that "[m]ost journalists are reluctant to use the L-word — 'lie.' This blog has covered the administration's contradictory claims and misleading statistics regularly, but calling something a lie implies you know that it was intended to deceive."  One definition of "lie" does require conscious intent, but that is not the only definition.  Moreover, it is all too easy to hide behind the claim that a journalist cannot know that a claim "was intended to deceive," so nothing could ever be called a lie.  Does Trump intend to deceive when he says false things?  Maybe he is just ignorant.  Better not call it a lie!

But the annoying part of the Pulitzer aspect of this is that, just like the faux-Nobels, the awards confer false expertise on the recipient.  Economists who win their prize are treated as sages who can weigh in on any economic topic, even those about which they actually know little or nothing.  Pulitzer-winning journalists are similarly treated as extra, super smart.

The worst example of this might be Times reporter Maggie Haberman.  She was part of a team of reporters that won a 2018 Pulitzer, and as soon as she won, this was viewed on the left as a major rebuke of Trump, who had once called her a "third-rate reporter."  Obviously, I am more than happy to see news that will make Trump unhappy, but this is silly.

Worse, this validates people like Haberman when they spout off on matters of which they know nothing or about which they have a personal interest.  Earlier this year, Haberman infamously attacked the comedian Michelle Wolf for being a big meanie to Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Correspondents Dinner.  Haberman was clearly trying to protect her access to the White House, jumping on Wolf for making comments about Sanders's looks that (as Wolf quickly pointed out) she had not made.

And Haberman also plays the "it's not a lie" game.  Even a minor celebrity like Chrissy Teigen (who?) once went after Haberman for using the euphemism "demonstrable falsehoods" to avoid calling statements by Trump lies.  Teigen explained that for journalists like Haberman, it is all about "[a]ccess. It is quite the conundrum. Be able to be in the same room as someone as fragile as our man child leader OR call him out on his s— and never be invited back."  Chrissy Teigen understands this better than prize-winning journalists.  Think about that.

All of this would still be happening, of course, even if Haberman had never been part of a group that won a Pulitzer.  Being a Times reporter alone is enough to make many people think that she is especially insightful.  But doing important investigative work on Trump's Russia connections (which is what that Pulitzer recognized) does not make a person insightful.  It possibly makes them a good reporter, but perhaps not even that.  They might be nothing more than a person who has at least once contributed to some good reporting.

The world has a lot of problems, and maybe fawning over economists and journalists for nonexistent virtues is a small one.  Yet it continues to be worrisome that so much of what we hope will preserve democracy and policy sanity is driven by a particularly degraded version of celebrity culture.