Very Tough Work

When the Nobel Prizes were established, in 1901, the Nobel Foundation for perhaps a decade sought to spirit laureates into Stockholm in order that they should be available when their recognition was announced. The world was smaller then. The Swedes gave up, in favor of telegrams, after reporters began staking out the railroad stations.

Secrecy and surprise have been part of the mystique of the prizes since the beginning. Even though consensus takes much time and effort to achieve, and a certain amount of preparation to announce, confidentiality is zealously maintained.

(There’s confidentiality, and then there’s confidentiality. New York University last week accidentally posted, then quickly removed, a webpage advertising a Tuesday press conference for Stern Business School professor Paul Romer, the significance of which Romer dismissed on his blog.)

These days the prize-awarders appear always to have at least two agreed-upon awards ready to go, right up to the day of decision. For this year’s economics prize, then, nothing more is required than to wake up Monday morning. They’ll tell us when their minds are made up. Economic Principals will send along a story at the end of the day.

Meanwhile, Robert Lucas, 79, the most influential economist to have entered the profession since Kenneth Arrow, is retiring from active teaching at the University of Chicago. The Swedes recognized Lucas in 1995. The university’s Social Science Division this year awarded him its topmost honor, its Phoenix Prize. Colleagues organized a conference last week in his honor. Former students presented papers reflecting his broad influence in macroeconomics, growth theory, public economics, and asset pricing.

The papers reflected Lucas’s transformative influence on the profession — new and more demanding mathematics, imaginative applications, policy relevance, consideration of how conclusions might be tested against the world, all “very tough work,” in the phrase of José Scheinkman, of Columbia University.

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