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EXCLUSIVE: The secret deliberations of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

If you're wondering why it took me a few hours before choosing to blog about Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Price award.... well, it took me that long to stop laughing. 

Honestly, I'm not laughing at Obama.  I'm laughing at the morons on the Norwegian Nobel Committee who made this decision to cheapen an already devalued prize.

Seriously, let's imagine the deliberations that led to this decision:

CHAIR:  Guys?  Guys!!  It's 2 AM and we've got an award to give later today!  What are we gonna do?    We can't use Jimmy Carter again -- he was our emergency winner the last time we were stumped!  If we don't do this right, we'll have less credibility than the Grammys!!

MEMBER A (clearly drunk):  Hey, why not Neil Patrick Harris?  For bringing peace to.... umm.....  Hollywood awards shows?! 

MEMBER B:  Remember when Time's Man of the Year was... you?  Why can't we do something like that?  You know, say that the Peace Prize goes to all peace-loving people. 

CHAIR:  No f%$&ing way.  What do you want me to do, hold up a mirror to the cameras when I say who won?  And you know how many idiots would ask for their take of the prize money? 

MEMBER A:  Seriously, Neil Patrick Harris is awesome.  Any of you checked out Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog

MEMBER B:  Hey, how about that Iranian guy who won the election but got screwed by the mullahs?  He seemed pretty peaceful.

CHAIR:  Sorry, no dice.  We used up our Iranian quota this decade with Shirin Ebadi.   

MEMBER B:  That Zimbabwean guy?   

CHAIR:  If you can't remember his name, then he's not getting the award. 

MEMBER C:  Did you read how the Oscars will have, like, 10 nominees for Best Picture this year?  Why not give this to all 20 members of the G-20? 

CHAIR:  Doesn't the G-20 actually have more than 20 members?  Can anyone name them all?

Silence....

MEMBER A:  And How I Met Your Mother is definitely underrated as a sitcom.  NPH owns that show.   

MEMBER C:  Hugh Jackman was People's Sexiest Man Alive this year.  Why not double up on him, like we did with Al Gore

MEMBER A:  Get serious, man.  Wolverine sucked!!

MEMBER B:  Hey, here's a crazy thought... why not Barack Obama? 

General laughter and merriment.

CHAIR:  How exactly are we going to justify the award?  Jesus, even Jimmy Carter had done some actual peacemaking when we gave it to him.  What are we going to say?  "Barack Obama has succeeded brilliantly in not acting like George W. Bush in His First Term?"

MEMBER B:  C'mon... the guy just lost the Olympics bid even after flying all the way to Copenhagen. 

MEMBER A:  Hey, how about Taylor Swift?  We could guarantee Kanye wasn't in the audience. 

MEMBER B:  Look, maybe it will give Obama a boost.  With the massive prestige that the Nobel Peace Prize now carries in the United States because of our brilliant recent selections, maybe this will help get health care reform passed.  This award would so put conservatives on the defensive!

[General nodding around the table.]

MEMBER A:  Fine, no one else likes Neil Patrick Harris at this table, I get that.  What about Roman Polanski?  That would make a statement.   

CHAIR (looks at watch):  Fine, whatever, we're way past deadline.  (Points at MEMBER B).  Write up the explanation.  (Points at MEMBER A).  Contact Neil Patrick Harris and put him on "standby" in case Obama can't make it for the acceptance speech. 

MEMBER B (scribbling furiously):  Hmmm....how's this?  "Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened."

CHAIR:  Hmmm.... no actual achievements other than Not Being George W. Bush in His First Term, but it sure sounds good!  OK, we're adjourned 

MEMBER C (looking through nomination letters):  I can't believe that professor from Tufts nominated Salma Hayek again.  Doesn't he know that this is a serious award?!   

In semi-seriousness -- Bono got robbed, man.

UPDATE:  I do think Obama's response was to the hubbub was pretty good.  Again, I'm really not laughing at him -- I'm laughing at the Nobel Committee's decision-making.  At this point in time, there were a lot of other, more deserving candidates. 

Giving the award to Obama is kind of like giving that junior professor the Teacher of the Year award -- it dooms their chances for tenure. 

In Other Words

Dismal Political Science

International Political Science Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, June 2007

One of the reasons The West Wing's Jed Bartlet appealed to television audiences was that he was not merely the president; he was also a Nobel Prize-winning economist. This fact seemed reassuring. Unlike his political rivals, Bartlet was more than a politician; he was a technocrat. As the world grows more complex, and as economic growth has become the ne plus ultra of political leadership, the idea that those who possess genuine economic expertise are better leaders of society has an intuitive appeal. The technocratic leader has also occupied a privileged place in political science, stretching back to the days of Woodrow Wilson and Max Weber.

Are economists increasingly in charge of politics? Do economists make better leaders? These are the questions that Anil Hira, a political scientist at Canada's Simon Fraser University, is ostensibly trying to answer in his essay, "Should Economists Rule the World?" in the June 2007 issue of the International Political Science Review. In the article, he claims that "there has been a notable rising importance of economics as a background for leaders in Latin America, Africa, and Asia." But he concludes that, even if economics is appearing on more political resumes, this training does not appear to help these leaders achieve better economic outcomes. (Hira cites Peru's Alejandro Toledo, Indonesia's Suharto, and U.S. President George W. Bush as examples of leaders who may have disappointed their economics instructors.) These are fascinating results. Alas, they're fascinating in ways that lead one to seriously question the refereeing process at the International Political Science Review.

To determine whether developing countries have been turning to economists as leaders, Hira looks at the educational background of national leaders from "major countries," such as Argentina, the Philippines, and South Africa in the developing world at five-year intervals. At first blush, the evidence supports the observation that technocrats are on the rise. In Latin America, the percentage of leaders with a background in economics, business, or engineering increased from 5 percent in 1970 to 33 percent in 2005. In Asia, the figure jumped from zero economists in 1970 to 43 percent in 2005. The only region where Hira found no "technification of leadership" is the Middle East.

Hira has gone to a great deal of trouble to find the necessary biographical information of these leaders. His evidence is not particularly compelling, however. First, there is a big difference between economics and engineering. Second, as Hira acknowledges, not all economics training is created equal. Flipping through the appendix, we discover that Hira counts the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, and North Korea's Kim Jong Il as having been educated in economics. These rulers merit many labels, but "economist" is not one of them. Third, there is a big difference between majoring in economics as an undergraduate and earning an advanced degree in the subject. The former indicates some comfort with the laws of supply and demand; the latter indicates a real technocrat. If one parses the data to look at those leaders who came to power with a graduate degree in economics, the trend toward "technification" looks much less impressive. In 2005, only six leaders met this more stringent criterion: fewer than 10 percent of the sampled countries.

Even if we accept Hira's definition of an economic technocrat, the question remains: Have these leaders improved their country's economic performance? Hira says the answer is no. Looking at the economic performance of the developing world, he observes that though inflation has declined in recent decades, so has the rate of economic growth. Furthermore, there has been a sharp increase in economic inequality within many of these societies. Hira therefore concludes that "economists are ineffective leaders."

Social scientists use the term "hand-waving" to denote arguments that are based on weak logic. I bring this up because Hira's conclusions in the previous paragraph might be the biggest display of hand-waving I've ever seen in a refereed publication. Simply put, the paper provides no concrete evidence to support his conclusion that economists are ineffective leaders of national economies. To do that, he would have had to compare the periods when a technocrat was the national leader with the periods when there was a different kind of leader. Or he could have compared countries that had economists in charge with those countries that did not. Or he could have done both. But Hira did none of the above. Rather, he points to three trends over time: an increase in economically literate leaders, a slowdown of economic growth, and an increase in inequality. Then he simply asserts that the first trend must have caused the latter two trends, without even discussing other possible explanations. That's Olympic-caliber hand-waving.

Hira made a concerted effort to collect the necessary data. Why didn't he conduct the proper tests? Perhaps because he has issues with the methodology required to conduct them. Toward the end of the paper, he concludes that "the basic design and theory of mainstream economics is flawed" because the profession pays more attention to growth than inequality. Hira provides some garden-variety critiques of the Washington Consensus -- the set of market-friendly policies, such as trade liberalization and privatization, advocated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Then he goes further: "Economic journals are filled with cold, hard calculations, and the discipline maintains a strong veneer of pseudo-scientific objectivism and formal modeling.... The problem is that economists have no greater insights or training into these broader questions, as is reflected in the absence of data and theories on institutions, inequality, and decision-making in their work." Hira is clearly uninterested in testing his stated hypotheses. He's much more comfortable leaping to the conclusions that follow from accepting his stated hypotheses as true.

Criticism of mainstream economics is hardly a fringe phenomenon these days. Economists ranging from Joseph Stiglitz to William Easterly have blasted various elements of the Washington Consensus. The critique of neoclassical economics as the bully of the social sciences also has its adherents, ranging from the "perestroika" movement in political science to the "heterodoxy" movement within economics itself. The problem is that Hira's article abjectly fails to demonstrate whether his data support his contentions about economics or not.

There are scholars, including the London School of Economics' Jeffrey Chwieroth, doing fascinating work on the spread of neoclassical economics training to the developing world. There are other scholars, such as Harvard's Dani Rodrik, who have published well-researched critiques of the Washington Consensus. Anil Hira has created a public good by developing a database on the educational background of developing-country leaders; graduate students everywhere should be grateful. Eventually, one of them may use it to truly answer the question of whether economists deserve our vote.