70 years of John Bate Clarke Medals: How do you define excellence in economics?

Beatrice Cherrier and Andrej Svorenčík research on 70 years of Clark Medal. They analyse the forces behind the medal and the several arguments over what is meant by excellence in economics:

As with other prizes, the history of the John Bates Clark medal has been fraught with controversy. Its very existence was repeatedly challenged. While the three first medals commanded wide agreement as discussed below, the 1953 nomination process launched a decade-long protest. Duke economist and historian Joseph Spengler, who was nominated to sit on AEA’s Committee on Honors & Awards (CHA), refused to vote. On April 10, 1953, he send a resignation note which made it clear that he “disagree[d] thoroughly with the principle of the award and, therefore, must abstain from giving a recommendation … I cannot conscientiously rate the people in question. If I were to make a new rating each week … I am sure that I would come up with a somewhat different rating each time. … I question very seriously whether we can make an effective appraisal, and whether, if we do, we can do much to advance the cause of economics.

While the decision to give no award that year also reflected other types of concern, it triggered a reassessment of the relevance of conferring the
award. The AEA leadership was deeply divided on the matter. Normann Buchanan, the head of theCHA, circulated a memorandum asked whether it was “wise for the AEA to make invidious distinctions by an official award that draws a sharper line than can [be] adequately justified.”

Manpower economist J. Douglas Brown thought that “the field of economics is so subdividedby specializations, university groupings, occupational connections, etc., that no group of judges can really comprehend the “values” of the contributions of all candidates.” Theimpossibility to set meaningful age and geographical boundaries was discussed. The 1957 nominating committee, for instance, was especially frustrated with having to dismiss the nomination of Richard Ruggles (too old), Guy Orcutt, Frank Adelman and Leonid Hurwicz (turning 40 days before the prize announcement), and Klein and Patinkin (considered residents of England and Israel).

Despite whatever controversy in the beginning and appeal for diversity, the awards mainly went to Universities in North-East:

Nevertheless, it seemed that in the first decades of operation, being the “right person in the right place” meant being a white male theorist with a PhD from Harvard. The gender bias did not changed until Susan Athey became the first woman to be awarded the medal in 2007. We found no evidence that the perceived theoretical bias of the first ten awards was deliberate. In those years the committee was in majority composed of applied economists, in
particular labor or industrial, and there was no sign that they explicitly believed that a “fundamental contribution” was necessary theoretical. As the identity of discipline stabilized in the postwar period, research which reflected a combination of theory, econometrics, measurement efforts and empirical creativity was increasingly rewarded. That went hand in hand with a decrease in the institutional diversity of laureates. Finally, while Harvard had been the dominant employment institution for laureates, Chicago gained traction, and MIT achieved domination as the most frequent PhD-granting institution for laureates by the mid 2000s.

Interesting paper..


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