Each year, the American Economic Association and many of its subfield organizations (the most prominent being the American Finance Association) select a number of honorees. These are often chosen (or at least prechosen) by a number of their insiders. (I have been one of many.) The honors include their respective presidencies but also awards for the best young scholars and the best papers. And, of course, then there is the Nobel Prize in Economics.

What should be the criteria for such honors? There can be many. There can also be a great deal of legitimate disagreement about them. Honors can be for deep contributions. They can be for wide contributions. They can be for the questions considered, or the credibility or ethics of the findings. Or they can be about diversity both in subject and identity—where diversity does not necessarily mean its politically correct incarnation but subfield and area rotation.

Economists are guilty of liking themselves. And why they like criteria that make themselves look better and more likely to be selected. And none of them is individually responsible for how the academic economics profession has evolved. 1

So, what could I possibly add as a useful criterion to the awarding of honors?

Trained economists in subfields outside that of the award itself should be able to learn, understand, appreciate, and explain the ideas and contribution.

I don’t necessarily mean that they should understand the contribution before the honor is awarded. I mean something much weaker. I mean that with a few hours of reading, every trained economist should want to do so. For me, this is a minimum criterion, not a maximum criterion. Maybe it should be even broader: economists in training or even just students in general should want to do so.

If our honors cannot satisfy even this low a standard, then economics is turning into the echo chamber that string physics has become. It is not a contribution in my mind to our understanding of physics that string models can be further convoluted, generalized, and twisted. Models about models (rather than models about reality) rarely lend themselves to anything other than a descent into an echo chamber. Of course, there should be a place for “models about models,” but it should be a limited niche.

So what can we change? For this, I have a simple second suggestion, and it is for ethical reasons just as much as it is for practical reasons:

Potential awardees should be proposed and explained not by someone working in the same department or subfield.

There are plenty enough good economists at Penn, UCLA, Cornell, CMU, LSE, Michigan and many other universities that are typically not ranked in the top-10 and who are very capable of opining on who most desserves an honor. One does not need to be Johnny Cash to judge songs, rudolf Nureyev to judge ballet, Pablo Picasso to judge paintings, or Naomi Campbell to judge models. (In fact, Donald Trump famously judged Miss World!) Economics sports hundreds of such economists who should understand economic contribution, even if their own work will never reach this level. Of course, such economists will still be inclined to look to the top departments for candidates, but this should be less nepotistic than it is today. Yes, I have said it. Academic economics is rife with nepotism.

Sometimes nepotism is intentional and explicit. More often, it is accidental and implicit. No single economist can fight today’s tribes by themselves. And there will be winners and losers. And the losers won’t like it.

So, let someone just a little less informed choose the candidate. Sacrifice some deep familiarity with the area and candidate for more objectivity, broader reach, and fairness. I suspect that 9 out of 10 honorees would still be the same. However, a less rigged system would be fairer and widely perceived to be fairer. And it would make economics better and clearer.

Otherwise, it will not just be our honors, but our entire profession that will continue turning into its own echo chamber.

  1. Diversity could not have meant great diversity in institutional affiliation, for we have been so effective in selecting researchers at the PhD admissions stage that we are in almost no need of later upward mobility based on academic publication record. Honors, positions, and prizes in my discipline seem to be decided by and according to PhD placement (if not PhD placement). (To our credit, economists do have downward mobility.)]