How we became prize fighters. Henry Leveson-Gower recounts.

I was going through my mail (the paper stuff) some months ago when I was a little shocked to open a letter from a lawyer. It began: “We act for Nobelstiftelsen (‘our client’ and ‘the Nobel Foundation’)”.  

When I first read this sentence, my heart raced. Not entirely with fear; there was a good measure of excitement. One of my wife’s favourite maxims came right back to me: “you will know that you are being successful when they come after you”. 

This was my chance for the big battle, rallying the troops behind the cause and getting the headlines we needed. This was my David and Goliath moment, my “Big Mac – do you want lies with that” legal case, my Exxon take-down. As Goliath and McDonald’s lost and Exxon is looking increasingly vulnerable, what could go wrong?

So, you ask, why might the Nobel Foundation be sending me legal threats? 

The story started about three years previously from a conversation with my friend and collaborator, Steve Keen, the author of the best-selling Debunking Economics.

Our idea was to nobble the 50th anniversary of the creation of the fake Nobel Prize in economics. We were up for a fight. In fact we thought we might create a Nobble Prize as a spoof and hold an award ceremony in Sweden, next door to the Nobel event. But we dropped that particular line. 

In the end we launched the #NotTheNobel Prize and a media campaign that started with promise but got drowned out by Boris Johnson’s Brexit shenanigans. Nevertheless – we provoked the Nobelstiftelsen to call in the Tom Sawyers (lawyers).

But why bother anyway? Well, it’s all about pushing back against a ploy by mainstream economists to present their craft as ranking alongside medicine and science

Second prize in a beauty competition

The so-called Nobel Prize in Economics is not officially a Nobel Prize. It is currently officially dubbed The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. It has had several previous titles in attempts to cling onto the Nobel brand while being reasonably accurate in admitting its creator – the Swedish Central Bank. The bank came up with the idea 50 years after the original Nobel Prizes were launched. 

The ducking and diving with the name followed complaints from the Nobel family and scientific academics. The Swedish government had given its Central Bank support and funding for the Nobel ruse as a sop after it had squashed the bank’s policy prescriptions. It had considered them to be at odds with the unique social democratic trajectory of Swedish economic policy. Ironically (or not) this sop would only build the forces that eventually reversed those very policies in the 90s and returned Sweden onto a path to levels of inequality not seen since prior to the 1920s.

The root of all evil

The lead-up to this coup has its roots in the nineteenth century when economists dumped the term political from their disciplinary title with its associations of subjectivity and controversy. They also stole the mathematical clothing from physics, the top dog of natural sciences. This worked well in an academic context making economics the “queen of the social sciences”, but the Nobel Prize now provided the potential for economics’ claimed scientific status to be cemented in the public eye, a much more important prize.

It is not that all economists winning this Nobelish prize have a uniform economic perspective. For instance the 2009 winner and the first woman to pick it up, Elinor Ostrom, challenged the myth of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, beloved of most economists, and has become an icon of the left. However the majority have promoted markets over governments, while also being white, male and Anglo-American. A surprisingly-significant number all hailed from a single university – the University of Chicago.  All of them have gained a spurious authority in policy development, potentially most damagingly in the case of William Nordhaus who has dominated work on the economics of climate change, undermining the natural scientific concensus that an average temperature rise above 1.5Co is dangerous.  He has proposed that a 4Co rise is optimum, a handy proposition for those seeking to undermine global motivation for joint action.

Fabricating a so-called Nobel prize for economics gave the economics discipline something beyond price: it made it look like a natural science, which mainstream economists had always craved. It was a brilliant PR coup, using a tried and tested trick of evolutionary successful species and fraudsters: mimicry. It provided a pedestal from which right wing economic thinking can influence governments and even bolster those who deny the seriousness of climate change (see box).

So what did Steve and I do to counteract this spurious authority? Following much discussion – going after the Nobel brand was not an enterprise to be taken lightly – we came up with our two-part campaign under the hashtag NotTheNobel. 

First we sought to raise awareness through blogs and events that the so called Nobel Prize in Economics was not a real Nobel prize as admitted by the Nobel Foundation itself, that it had many questionable winners, and economics was clearly not like a natural science – it was politically contested, affected the economy it studied, and generally failed to predict anything accurately, most famously the 2008 financial crash. 

Next we set up our own prize, the NotTheNobel prize inviting nominations from anyone, public voting to select five finalists and then a final vote which closed after a live-streamed panel discussion compéred by a comedian (that idea came from the Kilkenomics Festival of Economics and Comedy). In fact all elements of NotTheNobel prize sought to demystify and democratise economic thinking in contrast to the secretive, elitist nature of the selection process for the Nobelish prize.

It all worked pretty well in terms of getting engagement on social media, although the fairly expensive comedian did not turn out to be ideal with a questionable reference to sending nude selfies. However the campaign collided with the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, suspending parliament to avoid scrutiny of the government’s Brexit plans, which meant that there was no space in the mainstream media to cover our campaign in spite of our cultivation of key journalists. 

So back to my letter, two years later; maybe a court case vs the Nobel Foundation was the opportunity to get the wider public exposure we had failed to get in 2019.

Tom (not Sawyer), a friend and lawyer, brought me back down to earth: “taking on the Nobel Foundation is like taking on Mother Teresa, not Exxon,” he said. He pointed out that the courts and public opinion would immediately be biased against us “and truth will be irrelevant given the Nobel Foundation’s resources”.  

He described the Nobel Foundation’s lawyers as “expensive sharks who would eat you alive and bankrupt your organisation,” and counselled that I bow to their demands to bin the #NottheNobel Prize and remove all references from our websites and social media.  So I reluctantly capitulated, signed their undertaking and started planning what to do next.

Eighteen months later I am now publishing this article as the theme of this issue of The Mint is “truth and economics”. I am advised it won’t result in the Nobel Foundation’s lawyers writing me a further letter. But a part of me thinks, bring it on.

Further reading

Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg, The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn.

You can also hear Avner Offer talk about this work in the recording of an event we held prior to the NotTheNobel campaign.

Henry Leveson-Gower

Henry is the founder and CEO of Promoting Economic Pluralism as well as editor of The Mint Magazine. He has been a practising economist contributing to environmental policy for 25 …

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