Congratulations, Dr Tirole

It was announced today that Jean Tirole, an economist known for his pioneering work on market power imbalances and regulation, has been awarded this year’s Nobel in economics. Tirole’s work is indeed ground-breaking and hugely useful, given the fact that market power and regulation remains insufficiently studied in mainstream economics literature. As such, his Nobel victory is refreshing, and very much deserved. Unfortunately, those who deserve Nobels don’t always get them. The awarding of the Nobel to a market power scholar brings to mind the second greatest travesty in Nobel history- the refusal to accept Dr Joan Robinson into the Nobel fold. (The biggest travesty, of course, is the fact that the Nobel was denied to Rosalind Franklin and awarded instead to Francis Crick.)

Robinson was a ceaselessly brilliant scholar and a pioneer in a wide range of sub-fields within economics. In fact, I doubt Tirole’s work would have been possible without Robinson’s The Economics of Imperfect Competition, which not only introduced the first theoretical framework for studies of market power, but also attempted to answer the question of male-female wage differences, an issue which remains of paramount importance today.

Robinson authored one of the first growth theories- years before Roy Harrod, Evsey Domar or Robert Solow attempted the same. Her growth theory featured income distribution as a central player, an aspect of economics which we may only be clawing back toward in a post-Piketty world. Perhaps most impressively, she codified the field of development economics as we know it. Robinson was as accomplished a mathematical economist as she was an economic historian and philosopher, and her work on the role of ideology in economics remains unparalleled (too bad it bit her on the ass, Nobel-wise) Clearly, we have a stronger need for a revival of Robinson’s ideas now than ever.

In spite of reams of Nobel quality work, Robinson was denied the prize, and her name remains little more than a footnote, at best, even in graduate level economics literature. It did not help her case that she followed a left-wing interpretation of Keynesian economics and pursued friendships and collaborations with noted members of the Communist Party. Much like Franklin, perhaps the biggest strike against her was the possession of an inconvenient set of genitals, especially in a field which beats out even the hard sciences in “boy’s club” tendencies.

Clearly, for all their claims to be dispassionate, the Nobel committee still falls prey to certain biases. Conferring the prize on Robert Shiller and Eugene Fama, or Gunnar Myrdal and Friedrich Hayek, in the same year is a good start, but systematically denying others is unacceptable.

We cannot bring Robinson back to life to correct this imbalance. But perhaps working economists can reappraisal her work, expand on it, and save it from the brink. And we can only hope that ideologically or genitally “inconvenient” but deserving researchers like Esther Duflo and Thomas Piketty will not be unfairly denied the Prize when the time comes.


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