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Five Economists Whose Work Is Worthy of a Nobel

Noah Smith

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Once again it’s October, which means it’s time to debate whether the economics Nobel prize is a real Nobel or an impostor. And once that tired argument is duly rehashed, we can proceed to the more interesting topic -- who might win, and how their ideas help us understand the world. Here are five strong candidates for this year’s award:

No. 1. The New Keynesians

Not since 2011 has a prize been awarded to economists who primarily study the ups and downs of the business cycle, so we might be overdue. The obvious choice would be to award the prize for the creation of New Keynesian theory. This theory holds that recessions happen because businesses have difficulty adjusting their prices in response to economic disturbances.

Although it’s the dominant paradigm within modern academic macroeconomics, and is used by most central banks to help set monetary policy, New Keynesianism hasn’t yet received a gold medal from Sweden. One reason might be that the theory isn’t the brainchild of a single genius, but of a large group of influential figures who each added key elements. These include Michael Woodford, Stanley Fischer, Greg Mankiw, Nobuhiro Kiyotaki, Olivier Blanchard, Guillermo Calvo, Janet Yellen, David Romer and a number of others. Picking two or three to award the prize to will be hard, but it seems inevitable that the prize committee will eventually have to recognize this incredibly influential theory.

No. 2. Claudia Goldin

Before French economist Thomas Piketty ever hit the bestseller lists, Harvard University’s Claudia Goldin was writing about the rise in economic inequality. Combining the methods of labor economics and economic history, Goldin identifies increasing education as a key driver of the fall in U.S. inequality in the early 20th century, and blames a slowdown in educational attainment for the reversal of that happy trend.

Goldin has also extensively studied the changing role of women in the economy, weaving together trends like delayed childbearing, increasing education and forward-looking decision-making to create the authoritative story of how and why women entered the formal workforce. She has advocated for flexible work scheduling as a way to reduce the gender pay gap. And she has theorized that workplace gender discrimination results from men being afraid that the occupations they dominate will be devalued if women enter. In an age when society is struggling to eliminate gender inequality, Goldin’s work provides a crucial road map.

No. 3. David Card

Great changes have happened in the economics profession during the past three decades. The field has gone from a largely theoretical discipline to one firmly grounded in empirics and data. Although the transition is the work of many thousands of economists, perhaps no one has pointed the way forward as clearly as the University of California-Berkeley’s David Card. His landmark studies of low-skilled immigration and minimum wages changed the debate on those crucial issues, astonishing economists with the finding -- now corroborated by decades of follow-up research -- that neither is particularly damaging to local workers. Those results changed the world, but they represent only a small portion of Card’s extensive body of work. If anyone deserves to win a Nobel for the seismic shift that has changed the very meaning of economics research, it’s probably Card.

No. 4. Paul Milgrom

The economics Nobel tends to favor the work of pure theorists who work on the deepest problems. And few thinkers dig deeper than Stanford University’s Paul Milgrom. He was a major figure in the creation of auction theory -- probably the most empirically successful and practically useful economic theory of all time, which is now used to power everything from Google ads to federal spectrum auctions. He has also contributed deep insights to our understanding of financial markets, modeling the way that market makers interact with informed and uninformed traders, and helping to explain why trading happens in the first place. This is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Milgrom’s contributions in game theory, contract theory, labor economics, industrial organization, the economics of information and learning, and other fields are too numerous to mention or elaborate here. If he never wins the Nobel for this virtuosic career, it will be a big surprise.

No. 5. Daron Acemoglu

Daron Acemoglu is another virtuoso, but of a very different sort. Acemoglu tackles the big questions of why nations grow and develop or stagnate and decline -- the kinds of questions that rarely if ever get definitive answers. His most important thesis is that social institutions are crucial for development and don’t change much over time -- places that develop institutions based on exploiting labor and extracting resources tend to do badly over the centuries, while those that create more inclusive systems flourish. More recently, Acemoglu has tackled the question of whether automation will make humans obsolete. He has created new models of automation in which it’s possible for robots to reduce human wages, and theorized that different types of artificial intelligence could help human workers or compete with them. Beyond those topics, Acemoglu has a vast body of work, much of it dealing with difficult and expansive topics like politics, history, culture and technological change.

To contact the author of this story: Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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