ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Calcutta Diary

.

A LETTER to the editor of this journal wails over the waywardness of the Nobel Prize awards in economics. The awards have shown an inordinate bias towards neo-classical economists. The mildest deviation from orthodoxy has not been tolerated. Even such otherwise impeccable Keynesians as Nicholas Kaldor and Joan Robinson have been ignored for the towards. This is most unfair, the letter comments unless the Awards committee begins to make amends, the faith of economists in general, and in the underdeveloped countries in particular, in the objectivity of the awards will decline precipitately, the letter concludes with the warning.
It is a most sincere letter, a well-meaning letter. And yet its naivete is overwhelming, almost enchantingly so. How does one define objectivity? Is there any objectivity in economics, or is it that those signing the letter have suddenly turned into votaries of what goes by the name 'positivist economics? Who persuaded them to assume that the members of the awards committee are at all interested in objectivity, or would allow such objectivity to colour their decision on the awards? Would it not be more a case of I-have-been-true-to-thee-Seneca-in-my-fashion? A gentle-man, who patented the manufacture of dynamite, and minted money by com-mercially exploiting the patent, had set up the awards, which were named after him, at the turn of the century. The economics prize was introduced fairly recently, and the money was put up by a consortium of the mightiest banks. Why should one assume that the awards would not reflect the biases of those who were responsible for establishing the endowment in the first place? Particularly in the post-World War II phase, nobody could accuse the Nobel awards committees of running away from demonstrative subjectivity. Mena-ehem Begin and Henry Kissinger, both, have received the Nobel prize for, of all things, peace. A bias in not a black humour, it is just a bias, and, as the Americans say, period. Expatriate Slavs, who left their East European homes, have almost monopolised the prize for literature in the recent period, unless you take into account the occa-sional awards to specimens such as Saul Bellow, the specialist writer of pothoiling American fiction. True, every twenty years or thereabouts, a Left-leaning Latin, a Neruda or a Carcia-Marquez, has received the litera-ture prize, but that must be a tactical manoeuvre; besides, where will they find a Latin literary man who is non-Left? The awards in natural science and medicine have heavily concentrated on American scientists and technologists. And in economics, leaving out the award to Gunnar Myrdal — who is much too uncomfortably close to home — the decisions have been severely consistent; it is only those who conform to the neo-classical tradition, and all that goes with it, who have been favoured with the prize. Mind you, in this list, some first rate minds like Ragnar Frisch and Ken-neth Arrow have been included from time to time, but the number of lemons who too have been included is no less impressive. You may be a lemon, but you are a lemon for a cause, you are for the neo-classical cause, by implication you are against those who want to clutter up economics with ideologies imported from the socialist sand-dunes or some such outlandish region. On such issues, no compromise is possible. It is not that you must not have an ideology, but you must have the appro-priate ideology, such as Professor von Hayek or Professor Friedman exempli-fies. Capitalists have put up the money for the prize, they will award it in a manner which helps to propagate their cause the best. They will award only those whose writings help this cause. If. somebody, while using the facilities provided by capitalist premises, takes upon himself or herself to deviate from the received doctrine, how do you ex-pect him or her to be considered for the award?

It is a perfectly understandable point of view. It is their money and their prize. Whether through exploitation or otherwise, they have made their pile; it is for them to spend it, or burn it. A group amongst them, bankers all, decided that they must have a separate award for economics. So the award was instituted. You cannot expect someone who is not quite 'correct' to be chosen for the award, someone who makes snide comments about the American establishment, someone who is for nu-clear disarmament, someone who spouts, or spouted, Cultural Revolution. You cannot expect the Joan Robinsons and the Nicky Kaldors to have their case seriously considered. Their econo-mics is all wrong from the point of view of the donors — and the awards ccirunittee.

Actually, the awards committee has rendered a great service by making the economics awards so categorically ideo-logy-based. Economics is not like foot-ball or cricket or tennis or badminton or basketball or running the hurdles or swimming the breast-stroke or putting the shot or throwing the javelin or lift-ing the weight. In economics, you can-not judge superiority or merit by taking recourse to measurements. The worth of two separate tracts in economies, granted a minimum of competence in assembling them, cannot be measured by pitting one against another. Even if the tracts detail two sets of prescrip-tive economics respectively, there is no way of assessing relative superiority: depending on the circumstances, some prescriptions click, some do not, but, given the number of external variables involved, an economic theorem found to click empirically in a certain situation cannot still be claimed to be inherently period to one which did not make even the first base when tried out. The awards, in any event, are therefore not declarations of superiority; they are declarations of preferences. The awards committee, and the donors, prefer a particular species of economics and economists. Their preference is their prerogative, why must others get hot under the collar?

That a letter of the sort addressed to the editor has nonetheless been addressed is reflective of a certain ob-duracy in accepting reality as it is. It betrays, or so it appears, an inability to be at peace with the truth that eco-nomics is not a homogeneous whole, that what is their economics is not necessarily our economics, that it is our biases, preferences and predilections which shape economics, and therefore we should forget all notions about a common set of norms and a common code of procedures for evaluating the works of economists. It is this failure to acknowledge the non-homogeneity of economics which should cause concern. After all, even neo-classical formula-tions will not demur, if economics deals with the allocation of global resources, telescope the tale from Euler's Theorem to E Malinvaud, the criteria for deter-mining the allocation for a group of bankers must still be way different from what they will be for a group of poets or writers or artisans or hungry pea-sants or striking workers. No economics is possible which abstracts itself from values or ideology or biases. Try out such an abstraction, and all you will be left with is a frame of methodology. A frame is a frame, it is no economics, To revert to the letter, perhaps there is a little bit more to it in this lament over the Nobel prize awards being rendered so blatantly ideological. Espe-cially in the poor countries, the emo-tional links with the advanceerished by elite groups, dnations of the West are greatly chand to the fore are the elite groups among the academic com-munity. There is a good side to it; to have a living relationship to develop-ments elsewhere in the world enriches our intellectual pursuits.  But there is also a pernicious side to i t ; it leads to blinkers being drawn over the reality of diversity of situations and interests Tuid to such absurdities as considering awards like the Nobel prize as absolute hallmarks of brilliance and excellence. In slightly more uncharitable language, this latter urge will perhaps be described as an expression of latent neocolo nialism. The crisis arises when this almost religious faith in the indisputability of the foreign talisman gets shaken by the realisation that the talisman has failed to accord recognition to a Joan Robinson or a Nicholas Kaldor, whose superiority, to us, is so explicitly proved as to satisfy the rigours of logical positivism. The fault, dear theist, is not in the judgment of the awards committee, it is in the theism itself

By awarding the prizes to the likes of Begin and Kissinger and Friedman and Saul what hisname, the Nobel committees might have actually helped to disabuse some neocolonial illusions. Does not that letter to the editor cry out to be redrafted, should it not in fact contain a homage and a tribute to the awards committee for being true to thine own self?

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top