Claudia Goldin says she’s a hedgehog. Will she win a Nobel anyway?

Way back in the spring, my alumni magazine asked me to do a Q&A with the economist Claudia Goldin. After I did it, it was obvious to both the editor and me that she merited a full feature. That piece, Delight in Discovery, is out now.

Cut from the story was a section on whether Goldin should win a Nobel Prize in Economics. I think the question has merit, so here it is, with some full source names added:

Economic history is not a large field, nor is it a glamorous field. Exactly one Nobel Prize in Economics has been given for economic history, the 1993 prize shared by Robert Fogel and Douglas North for applying quantitative analysis to economic history. Leah Boustan (former student of Goldin’s and now a professor at UCLA)  says economic history is messy and complicated, compared to the “flash of brilliance” theories the Nobel committee seems to like. Only one woman has won the economics Nobel, the political scientist Elinor Ostrom.

Goldin is probably the best-regarded economic historian. She just completed a stint as the president of the American Economic Association (only the third woman to have held the job). She’s won some top labor economics prizes, including a Jacob Mincer prize and the John R. Commons Prize, and two Richard A. Lester book prizes (for The Gender Gap and The Race Between Technology and Education). Could she win the biggest prize in economics, the Nobel?

Goldin waves away the idea. “I am a hedgehog, and that prize goes to foxes,” she says.

Others think it’s a matter of time for the 69-year old economist. Edward Glaeser [PhD Chicago, economist at Harvard] calculates that Fogel and North won in the 24th year the prize was given, and it’s coming up on 24 years since then, so an economic historian might be due. If so, Goldin would be the likely choice.

“She’s made economic history relevant,” he says. “Her book with Larry (Katz) is a stunning example of illuminating work that is central to the world we live in today.” Glaesar calls that book [The Race Between Technology and Education] one of the four or five most important books in economics in the last 50 years. He also says her that “no one can touch her” work on gender, the family and its impact on skills.

Robert Margo (economist at Boston University) thinks the economic role of women is, along with the Civil War and Emancipation, the most important social transformation in U.S. history. “Her work’s the definitive work on that, and basically provides a blueprint for anybody who wishes to study the same issues in any other country,” Margo says. Boustan calls Goldin’s work on the gender gap “just the cherry on top, which is amazing to say.”

Steven Levitt posted on his blog in 2011 about the Blackboard List, a sheet of paper he found in his office titled “Blackboard at the University of Chicago October 5, 2005: Future Nobel Prize Winners.” The Blackboard List has been a good predictor: 10 of the 34 relevant names on it have subsequently won (including Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen, who won in 2013 along with Robert Shiller). Goldin is the only woman on the Blackboard List, and she’s last on the list, which Levitt thought gave her good odds (the names near the bottom of the list win more often). But Goldin didn’t make a couple of popular ‘short lists’ for the 2013 Nobel; all the candidates were men.

Lists are not data, of course, and even Sherlock Holmes might be baffled by the committee’s choices. But Goldin’s work stands on its own, and she’s still chasing clues. She’s working now on infant mortality data, looking at the role sewer systems in Massachusetts played in boosting the likelihood that infants would survive, and how that changed the work force. Perhaps her phone will ring early one morning some day soon.

Obviously, her phone did not ring this fall, just before this piece was published. It went to the French economist Jean Tirole for ‘his analysis of market power and regulation.’ Tirole was fourth from the bottom of the Blackboard List.

Leave a Reply