Nobelprisdag is a special day in Sweden. Stockholm city centre stops while the prizewinners are shunted from the Grand Hotel to the Concert House for the awards, then on to the City Hall for the dinner, followed by the laureates’ speeches, and a ball. All this is fully covered on Swedish television, preceded by the Peace Prize ceremony relayed from Oslo. It starts on SVT2 at midday, and goes on into the small hours.
The speeches started this year with Saul Perlmutter’s on behalf of himself and the other winners of the Physics Prize. It was a model of the genre: explaining his research (on the size of the universe), conveying the excitement of his pursuit of it, modest in his claims both for it and for his personal contribution, and generous towards his co-workers. All the science contributions were like that. So were the three Peace Prize speeches – by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman – from Oslo. The Literature laureate, Tomas Tranströmer, was unable to speak for himself – he has had a stroke – and so was represented by his wife and collaborator Monica. So far, so good – even inspiring. Then, however, came the economist.
Economics was not one of the original disciplines named for a prize under the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will. Indeed, it isn’t strictly a Nobel Prize at all, but the ‘Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel’. It was instituted in 1968, bought, effectively, by a group of Swedish bankers, who then somehow managed to persuade the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to take it under their wing. Perhaps it was the money. Its place in the roster of ‘Nobel Prizes’ is controversial in Sweden today. It certainly isn’t valued as highly as the others.
From Saturday night’s event, one can see why. Thomas Sargent, speaking for himself and the other Economics winner, Christopher Sims, decided, in effect, to tell the Swedes (and everyone else) to lower their taxes and cut their social spending, in obedience to what are coming to appear more and more discredited free market theories. They must remember, he said, that ‘there is a trade-off between equality and efficiency’. But this is just what the Swedes over the years have shown to be untrue. Sweden is both more equal and more efficient than (say) the USA. Most Swedes would say the two qualities are connected. The mean, narrow dogmatism of Sargent’s contribution contrasted vividly with the breadth and humility of the natural scientists’. If the purchase of a ‘Nobel Prize’ for themselves was intended to enhance the public reputation of economists, this speech will have done their cause no good.