Remember the old advertisement, “Got Milk?” We here at the Moral Economy were still young scallywags when those commercials appeared, and we loved to repeat them in the classroom, on the playground, and everywhere we went. Now we’re serious adults, and as serious adults we go to offices and meeting rooms (sometimes, anyway). What do we repeat there? We talk about the presidential debates, the latest scandals, and — of course — who got the Nobel Prize. Just as advertisers shove products down our throats, politicians shove their politics in our lives. Mostly, the consequences of such politics are much more harmful than the products that ads sell us. Same is the case with the Nobel Prize, how much do we know about Alfred Nobel? What are the criteria that go into selecting the winners? Perhaps the Nobel Prize is just a PR stunt for the ‘merchant of death’? Listen and find out for yourself! Got Propaganda?
// Part 2 Audio (download):
Current Issue Analysis (CIA):
Is the Nobel Prize Really Noble?
Most of us will agree that the Nobel Prize is perhaps the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a human being. Fair enough! But perhaps, most of us don’t know that Alfred Nobel, the man who bequeathed his wealth to the prize, amassed much of his fortune from trade in dynamite and ballistite. His personal pacifism aside, he came from a family of science, who were interested in machine tools and explosives. At the time of his death in 1896,he owned almost a hundred armaments factories. And it was a premature obituary in a French newspaper in 1888 calling him a “merchant of death” that activated his existential guilt. As biographical sketches go, it might have been this article in the French press that condemned him for “becoming rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before” that brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death, considering also that he didn’t have a wife or children to be remembered with. It is quite possible that the French were just angry at him for selling his explosive ballistite to Italy. He was accused of high treason for this act of his and forced to leave France in 1891. But one could argue that while signing his will in 1895, he had nothing but good intentions. Okay, fair enough. So at the time of his death in 1896, one of the largest private fortunes of the world, at that time, went on to constitute a fund, the interest on which was to be awarded as a annual prize to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. Bam! And so we had the Nobel Prizes but only after difficult negotiations spanning almost four years, thanks to bad journalism, existential guilt and, of course, explosives.
Since 1901, the Nobel Prizes claim to honor honoring men and women from all corners of the globe for outstanding achievements in physics,chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and for work in peace. In 1968,the Swedish Central Bank funded the Nobel Prize in economic sciences in memory of Mr. Nobel, but we’ll come to that later.
Shrouded in secrecy and legend, the Nobel Prize first became an object for serious scholarly study after 1976, when the Nobel Foundation opened its archives. Subsequent research by historians of science leaves little doubt: the Nobel medallion is etched with human frailties. Although we could understand some degree of subjectivity in the literature and peace prizes, there is not much doubt in our minds that the science prizes are an objective measure of excellence. But, from the start, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the physics and chemistry prizes, and the Caroline Institute, which awards those for medicine/physiology, have based their decisions on the recommendations of their respective committees. And the committee members’ own understanding of science has been critical in determining outcomes. The most notable example being of none other than Albert Einstein himself and his case explains the problems with the award-granting process.
In 1905, Einstein, then 26, published three papers that were to influence the entire 20th century, not just its physics. One of these papers concerned the special theory of relativity, which describes how space and time, or mass and energy, are mixed at high speeds. One paper describes the “Brownian motion,” the irregular motion performed by small particles in a liquid as a result of their collisions with the liquid molecules. The third paper, finally, explains the photo-electric effect, why light can make electricity leave metal surfaces, something we apply in ordinary photocells.
Of the three theories, the theory of relativity became the most written about and discussed. When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences year after year asked scientists for their nominations, many answered that Einstein deserved the Nobel Prize in Physics for his special theory of relativity. But the Nobel Committee for Physics didn’t agree, and for years no prize was awarded to Einstein!
At first the Nobel Committee argued that the theory might bewrong and wrote that it would be best to wait for experimental evidence that confirmed Einstein’s theory. When Einstein managed to “generalize” his theory and introduced the curved space-time, in which light bends around heavy astronomical bodies, the number of nominations increased even more.
But much of it had to do with the Nobel Committee for Physics itself. It had a powerful member, Allvar Gullstrand, professor at Uppsala University and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 1911 for his work on how the light bends in the eye. In his opinion, Einstein was wrong, and he tried to prove it by making his own calculations. Today, we know that Gullstrand was wrong, but his opposition was enough to block the prize-awarding process.
In Uppsala, however, another professor, Carl Wilhelm Oseen, a specialist on mathematical physics, understood Einstein’s theories and had also understood the power balance in the Committee. As a newly elected member of the Academy, in 1921 he was the first to propose giving to Einstein a Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect. This single nomination made the wheels begin to turn in Einstein’s favor.
Oseen was made a member of the Nobel Committee and wrote a positive report on the theory of the photoelectric effect. The very next year, Albert Einstein was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”
So was the Royal Academy of Sciences mistaken in not giving its award of a Nobel Prize to Einstein for what most people would consider his most important intellectual discovery? Many have argued that this is the case. But one has to study a little bit more history of physics before making the final judgment. In this history it is clear that Einstein’s paper from 1905 not only explained the photoelectric effect, but also initiated something of a greater magnitude, something revolutionary: it introduced the concept of the photon, the wave-particle which not only lies at the heart of our understanding of both micro- and macro cosmos, but which led to technical applications such as medical laser scalpels and the laser diodes of the Internet. With regard to the text of Alfred Nobel’s will, which requires that a Nobel Laureate confer the greatest benefit on mankind, it seems that Einstein’s introduction of the photon by far surpasses his theory of relativity!
But this very famous example, and its not the only one, goes on to show that, even in the objective world of science, there are no unambiguous and impartial criteria for selecting a winner, hence, much of the halo surrounding the prize needs to be dimmed, for it is more often than not the case that there are several candidates equally worthy of the prize.
But apart from the pettiness and partiality that marks the Nobel Committee, as it does other things human, the prize also confers legitimacy to a very individualistic image of science that only advances through the efforts of a single genius. As appealing as this image may be, it is not entirely true. From the history of science we know that research progresses through the work of many. Brilliant minds do matter, but it is often inappropriate and unjust to limit recognition to few, when so many extremely talented scientists may have contributed to a given breakthrough. The Nobel bylaws do not allow splitting a prize into more than three parts, thereby excluding discoveries that entailed work by more than three researchers, or omitting key persons who equally deserved to share in the honor.
Not only this, the Prize in science is a strong commentary on the inequality in our world. An overwhelming 60 percent of all Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Physics, Medicine and Economics are affiliated to one of the following six American universities, yes the six of them: MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, Columbia and Berkeley. And if you add Cambridge to them then this becomes 568 Nobel laureates from these seven powerful institutions; that is a whopping 73 percent of all prizes in these categories.
But I believe that this fixation on prizes is not something we should cherish, neither is the hyper competition that such a culture promotes. And I quote one of the finest minds of the last century, himself a Nobel Prizewinner – haha – denouncing the award. Richard Feynman, he said: I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.”
But the most famous outlier, and my personal favorite, is Jean-Paul Sartre, who in 1964 became the first person ever to decline a Nobel Prize. The Veitnamese revolutionary Lê Ðúc Tho, became the second person to do so in 1973 when he turned down the Peace Prize for his role in the Paris Peace Accords seeking to establish peace in Vietnam on the grounds that there was no actual peace in Vietnam. And… if Bob Dylan keeps his silence on the prize, as he has until now, we might have a third refusal of the prize 😀
The reason I mentioned Sartre is that some of the reasons he uses to decline the prize are very telling even today… he says: “The only battle possible today on the cultural front is the battle for the peaceful coexistence of the two cultures, that of the East and that of the West. I do not mean that they must embrace each other — I know that the confrontation of these two cultures must necessarily take the form of a conflict — but this confrontation must occur between men and between cultures, without the intervention of institutions. I myself am deeply affected by the contradiction between the two cultures: I am made up of such contradictions. My sympathies undeniably go to socialism and to what is called the Eastern bloc, but I was born and brought up in a bourgeois family and a bourgeois culture. This permits me to collaborate with all those who seek to bring the two cultures closer together. I nonetheless hope, of course, that “the best man wins.” That is, socialism. This is why I cannot accept an honor awarded by cultural authorities, those of the West any more than those of the East, even if I am sympathetic to their existence. Although all my sympathies are on the socialist side. I should thus be quite as unable to accept, for example, the Lenin Prize, if someone wanted to give it to me, which is not the case. I know that the Nobel Prize in itself is not a literary prize of the Western bloc, but it is what is made of it, and events may occur which are outside the province of the members of the Swedish Academy. This is why, in the present situation, the Nobel Prize stands objectively as a distinction reserved for the writers of the West or the rebels of the East. It has not been awarded, for example, to Neruda, who is one of the greatest South American poets. There has never been serious question of giving it to Louis Aragon, though he certainly deserves it. It is regrettable that the prize was given to Pasternak and not to Sholokhov, and that the only Soviet work thus honored should be published abroad and banned in its own country. A balance might have been established by a similar gesture in the other direction. During the war in Algeria, when we had signed the “declaration of the 121,” I should have gratefully accepted the prize, because it would have honored not only me, but also the freedom for which we were fighting. But matters did not turn out that way, and it is only after the battle is over that the prize has been awarded me. In discussing the motives of the Swedish Academy, mention has been made of freedom, a word that suggests many interpretations. In the West, only a general freedom is meant: personally, I mean a more concrete freedom which consists of the right to have more than one pair of shoes and to eat one’s fill. It seems to me less dangerous to decline the prize than to accept it. If I accept it, I offer myself to what I shall call “an objective rehabilitation.”—-
But that was about the “original” Nobel Prizes. It’s the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences that was not one of the five named in Nobel’s will and came about from an endowment from the Swedish Riksbank. Its establishment in 1968 was also no accident: The new prize arose from a longstanding conflict between the interests of the better-off in stable prices and the interests of everybody else in reducing insecurity by means of taxation, social investment and transfers. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize, but Sweden was also an advanced social democracy.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Riksbank clashed with Sweden’s government over the management of credit. Governments gave priority to employment and housing; the Riksbank, led by an assertive governor, Per Åsbrink, worried about inflation. As recompense for restrictions on its authority, the Riksbank was eventually allowed to endow a Nobel Prize in economics as a vanity project for its tercentenary.
As with the prizes in sciences, a group of center-right economists within the Academy of Sceinces captured the process of selecting prizewinners.The laureates comprised a high-quality sample of economics scholarship. Ananalysis of their influence, inclinations, and biases indicates that the Nobel committee kept up an appearance of fairness through a rigid balance between right and left, formalists and empiricists, Chicago School and Keynesian. But interestingly enough, 10 of the 58 Nobel Laureates in Economics belong to the University of Chicago. The prize kingmaker was Stockholm University economist Assar Lindbeck, who had turned away from social democracy. During the 1970s and1980s, Lindbeck intervened in Swedish elections, invoked microeconomic theory against social democracy, and warned that high taxation and full employment led to disaster. His interventions diverted attention from the grave policy error being made at the time: deregulation of credit, which led to a deep financial crisis in the 1990s and anticipated the global crisis that erupted in 2008.
Lindbeck’s concerns were similar to those of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the US Treasury. These actors’ insistence on privatization, deregulation, and liberalization of capital markets and trade – the so-called Washington Consensus – enriched business and financial elites, led to acute crises, and undermined emerging economies’ growth.
In the West, the priority accorded to the individualistic, self-regarding norms underlying the Washington Consensus created a nurturing environment for growth in corruption, inequality, and mistrust in governing elites – the unintended consequences of rational-choice, me-first premises. With the emergence in advanced economies of disorders previously associated with developing countries, Swedish political scientist Bo Rothstein has petitioned the Academy of Sciences (of which he is a member) to suspend the Nobel Prize in economics until such consequences are investigated.
Now Prof. Avner Offer of Oxford, in his book on the subject, argues, as I’ve mentioned above, that the whole exercise of instituting a Nobel Prize in Economics was to discredit what he calls social democracy. He admits that social democracy is not as deeply theorized as economics. It constitutes a pragmatic set of policies that has been enormously successful in keeping economic insecurity at bay. Despite coming under relentless attack for decades, it remains indispensable for providing the public goods that markets cannot supply efficiently, equitably, or in sufficient quantity. But the lack of formal intellectual support means that even nominally social-democratic parties do not entirely understand how well social democracy works. Unlike markets, which reward the wealthy and successful, social democracy is premised on the principle of civic equality. This creates a bias for “one-size-fits-all” entitlements; but there have long been ways to manage this constraint. Because economics appears to be compelling, and because social democracy is indispensable, the two doctrines have mutated to accommodate each other – which is not to say that their marriage is a happy one.
As with many unhappy marriages, divorce is not an option. Many economists have responded to the failure of their discipline’s core premises by retreating into empirical investigation. But the resulting validity comes at the cost of generality: randomized controlled trials in the form of local experiments cannot replace an overarching vision of the social good. A good way to begin acknowledging this would be to select Nobel Prize recipients accordingly.
Interestingly, it is the prize in economics that can – and often has – lend credibility to policies that harm the public interest, for example by driving inequality and making financial crises more likely. Standard economics assumes that society is driven by self-interested, utility-seeking individuals trading in markets, whose choices scale up to an efficient state via the “invisible hand.” But this doctrine is not well founded in either theory or practice: its premises are unrealistic, the models it supports are inconsistent, and the predictions it produces are often wrong. As we have witnessed, most recently in 2008.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Rejection Article (22 October 1964)
I deeply regret the fact that the incident has become something of a scandal: a prize was awarded, and I refused it. It happened entirely because I was not informed soon enough of what was under way. When I read in the October 15 Figaro littéraire, in the Swedish correspondent’s column, that the choice of the Swedish Academy was tending toward me, but that it had not yet been determined, I supposed that by writing a letter to the Academy, which I sent off the following day, I could make matters clear and that there would be no further discussion.
I was not aware at the time that the Nobel Prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient, and I believed there was time to prevent this from happening. But I now understand that when the Swedish Academy has made a decision it cannot subsequently revoke it.
My reasons for refusing the prize concern neither the Swedish Academy nor the Nobel Prize in itself, as I explained in my letter to the Academy. In it, I alluded to two kinds of reasons: personal and objective.
The personal reasons are these: my refusal is not an impulsive gesture, I have always declined official honors. In 1945, after the war, when I was offered the Legion of Honor, I refused it, although I was sympathetic to the government. Similarly, I have never sought to enter the Collège de France, as several of my friends suggested.
This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.
The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him. My sympathies for the Venezuelan revolutionists commit only myself, while if Jean-Paul Sartre the Nobel laureate champions the Venezuelan resistance, he also commits the entire Nobel Prize as an institution.
The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.
This attitude is of course entirely my own, and contains no criticism of those who have already been awarded the prize. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for several of the laureates whom I have the honor to know.
My objective reasons are as follows: The only battle possible today on the cultural front is the battle for the peaceful coexistence of the two cultures, that of the East and that of the West. I do not mean that they must embrace each other—I know that the confrontation of these two cultures must necessarily take the form of a conflict—but this confrontation must occur between men and between cultures, without the intervention of institutions.
I myself am deeply affected by the contradiction between the two cultures: I am made up of such contradictions. My sympathies undeniably go to socialism and to what is called the Eastern bloc, but I was born and brought up in a bourgeois family and a bourgeois culture. This permits me to collaborate with all those who seek to bring the two cultures closer together. I nonetheless hope, of course, that “the best man wins.” That is, socialism.
This is why I cannot accept an honor awarded by cultural authorities, those of the West any more than those of the East, even if I am sympathetic to their existence. Although all my sympathies are on the socialist side. I should thus be quite as unable to accept, for example, the Lenin Prize, if someone wanted to give it to me, which is not the case.
I know that the Nobel Prize in itself is not a literary prize of the Western bloc, but it is what is made of it, and events may occur which are outside the province of the members of the Swedish Academy. This is why, in the present situation, the Nobel Prize stands objectively as a distinction reserved for the writers of the West or the rebels of the East. It has not been awarded, for example, to Neruda, who is one of the greatest South American poets. There has never been serious question of giving it to Louis Aragon, though he certainly deserves it. It is regrettable that the prize was given to Pasternak and not to Sholokhov, and that the only Soviet work thus honored should be one published abroad and banned in its own country. A balance might have been established by a similar gesture in the other direction. During the war in Algeria, when we had signed the “declaration of the 121,” I should have gratefully accepted the prize, because it would have honored not only me, but also the freedom for which we were fighting. But matters did not turn out that way, and it is only after the battle is over that the prize has been awarded me.In discussing the motives of the Swedish Academy, mention has been made of freedom, a word that suggests many interpretations. In the West, only a general freedom is meant: personally, I mean a more concrete freedom which consists of the right to have more than one pair of shoes and to eat one’s fill. It seems to me less dangerous to decline the prize than to accept it. If I accept it, I offer myself to what I shall call “an objective rehabilitation.” According to the Figaro littéraire article, “a controversial political past would not be held against me.” I know that this article does not express the opinion of the Academy, but it clearly shows how my acceptance would be interpreted by certain rightist circles. I consider this “controversial political past” as still valid, even if I am quite prepared to acknowledge to my comrades certain past errors.
I do not thereby mean that the Nobel Prize is a “bourgeois” prize, but such is the bourgeois interpretation which would inevitably be given by certain circles with which I am very familiar.
Lastly, I come to the question of the money: it is a very heavy burden that the Academy imposes upon the laureate by accompanying its homage with an enormous sum, and this problem has tortured me. Either one accepts the prize and with the prize money can support organizations or movements one considers important—my own thoughts went to the Apartheid committee in London. Or else one declines the prize on generous principles, and thereby deprives such a movement of badly needed support. But I believe this to be a false problem. I obviously renounce the 250,000 crowns because I do not wish to be institutionalized in either East or West. But one cannot be asked on the other hand to renounce, for 250,000 crowns, principles which are not only one’s own, but are shared by all one’s comrades.
That is what has made so painful for me both the awarding of the prize and the refusal of it I am obliged to make.
I wish to end this declaration with a message of fellow-feeling for the Swedish public.
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