*** This article originally appeared at the Conversation. I want to reiterate here that the article does not represent a direct attack on the work of Jean Tirole. Rather, as stated below, it reflects some broader concerns with the way in which the academic economics profession is currently structured. It reflects in particular a concern with the continued exclusion of alternative perspectives within academic economics. Academic economics continues to evolve, but not in a way that allows for consideration of ideas from heterodox economics. We are all poorer, academic economists included, for this. Now to the article...
It’s that time of year again – when academic economics, thanks to the Nobel Prize announcements, is thrust into the public gaze.
That the economics Nobel is mistitled and has quite a different
status to the other Nobel Prizes is neither here nor there (the proper
and rather unwieldy title of the economics Nobel is the “Sveriges
Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”). The
award of the 2014 prize, in the eyes of the academic economics
profession and the wider public, still confers great kudos and status.
This year there is just one winner, Jean Tirole.
The French economist has earned his reputation and the prize for his
work on industrial organisation, which uses ideas from contract theory
as well as game theory to further research in this branch of economics.
His work is technical and based around the development of formal models.
Building from these models, Tirole has tackled different policy
questions including those relating to the regulation of large firms or
monopolists. The entry into the policy realm has come about despite –
rather than because of – the theory and method to which Tirole adheres, a
theory and method which is highly abstract and captures reality largely
as an afterthought.
Here I want to make two broad reflections. These relate to the
general state of academic economics and the context in which the
economics Nobel is awarded on a yearly basis. The below comments do not
intend to criticise directly the award of this year’s prize to Jean
Tirole. Rather I hope to provoke a wider debate on academic economics
that the economics Nobel seeks to honour.
An intellectual and ideological rut
Academic economics is still stuck in an intellectual and ideological
rut. Despite the global financial crisis – the worst in a lifetime –
academic economists are more likely to win awards and the respect of
their peers by producing abstruse models than by tackling and resolving
The economics Nobel awards advances in economic analysis – meaning
the development of formal models and the application of particular
mathematical and statistical techniques. In essence, solving puzzles
within economics matters more than dealing with grand societal
who has done more than anyone else in the last year to bring academic
economics to the public attention, had no real prospect of winning the
prize, given his concern with the real-world issue of inequality. The
non-award of the prize to Tony Atkinson
– pioneer of inequality and poverty studies – can also be explained in
the same way. But it should be a cause of concern, not least for members
of the public tuning in to learn who has won the economics Nobel, that
acute economic and social issues are not high on the agenda of academic
My second reflection is that academic economics is still all of a type – it stands for some variant of neo-classical economics.
Cosmetic differences aside, research in academic economics applies
concepts and methods found in this narrow school of thought.
It has dominated economic thinking since the late 19th century and
has marginalised all challengers. The award of the economics Nobel is,
in fact, an award for conformity to neo-classical economics. Other
schools of economic thought do not get a look in.
And this is in spite of the fact that neo-classical economic thinking
failed to foresee the global financial crisis and advocates the kind of
austerity policies that prevent recovery. It is alternative thinking –
whether from Keynesian, Marxian or ecological economics – that can help
us to understand how to build a fairer and more equal economy.
A prize for thinking differently and building a better economics
would be a great thing, but sadly it is not one that is awarded by the
committee of the economics Nobel. Indeed, given the acute problems that
exist in academic economics, it may even be time to call an end to the
economics Nobel. The world certainly would not be a worse place without