Who is the best?
This question is often asked in the world of sports. And it’s also often answered.
“There is no research setting other than sports where we know the name, face, and life history of every production worker and supervisor in the industry.”
Because we can literally identify and evaluate everyone, we can know who is the best. For example…
One can go on and on. We not only can rank players in individual statistics, but we can also measure overall performance. So, we can evaluate the “best” quarterbacks in QBR, or the best hitters in Runs Created, or the best basketball players in Wins Produced.
Because performance in sports can be measured, economists can use these measurements to look at such issues as how racial discrimination impacts a quarterback’s pay, how race impacts a quarterback’s ability to keep his NFL job, how gender impacted how much a baseball player was exploited in professional baseball immediately after World War II, how the publication of Moneyball impacted player pay in baseball, how nationality impacts the wages of players in the NBA, how NBA coaches impact player performance, and much more. In sum, because sports comes with numbers, sports allows economists to do so much more than just ponder: “Who is the best?”
Of course, who is the best is the question people seem to ask most often. And people don’t always determine who is best by just looking at the numbers. When we consider awards like the Most Valuable Player or the Rookie of the Year, the choice is often made in various sports by polling a large number of sports journalists. A similar approach is often taken to determine the members of the Hall of Fame in most sports. In leagues such as Major League Baseball and the National Football League, a large group of people are asked to determine whose lifetime performance is worthy of being included in the “Hall of Fame.”
For example, the Hall of Fame for the NFL is determined by a 48-member selection committee which draws upon the expertise of people all over the United States. Major League Baseball draws upon an even bigger pool, with over 400 people voting for the 2018 Hall of Fame class.
But let’s imagine sports took a different approach. Imagine a world where instead of looking at numbers or polling a large group of people, the Hall of Fame in each sport was determined by a group of six people. And let’s also imagine that this committee was essentially located in one place. So, imagine the National Football League’s Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio was entirely determined by a committee of six people from Canton, Ohio. Or the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame was entirely selected by a few people from Cooperstown, New York. Would the Hall of Fame still mean the same thing to fans of these sports?
If you say yes, then maybe Johnny Damon belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame. In 2018, eight writers voted for Damon for the Hall of Fame. If the Hall of Fame consisted entirely of these eight voters, Damon would have been a unanimous selection. Unfortunately for Damon, eight voters are less than 5% of the total possible votes. Consequently, not only is Damon not going in the Hall of Fame he won’t even be listed on future Hall of Fame ballots. Yes in sports, we often think we need more than eight people to decide who is the best.
In economics, though, the question “who is the best?” is determined in a fashion similar to the one described that might have landed Damon in baseball’s Hall of Fame. To see this, let’s talk about the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (i.e. the Nobel Prize in Economics).
The Nobel Prize is designed to tell us who is the best in a given field (i.e. literature, chemistry, economics, etc…). To address this issue, one probably would want to take the approach we see in sports. Specifically, in each field, one would want to consider the research produced by everyone. One would then think of some way to measure output. In other words, the first approach would probably be to look at some numbers.
Of course, numbers alone — just as we see in sports — might not be enough for us to reach a conclusion. It is really hard to compare research in very different fields. How would one really compare research in macroeconomics vs. research in environmental economics or economic development? Citation counts might be useful. But that might just capture the popularity of the field, not the real quality of the work.
Given a lack of objective measurements, maybe one could take the approach adopted by the Hall of Fame in baseball and football. One could assemble a large group of people to identify the top research. If your team was large enough, perhaps you could have enough people to consider all the research completed by the people at all the top schools. And perhaps if all those people voted, maybe we could have some confidence that the people selected were truly the best.
Although this approach seems reasonable, this is not quite the approach the Noble Prize committee takes. In economics, it appears the committee consists of less than ten people primarily from Sweden. Yes, we are determining “who is best” by asking less than ten people –generally from the same country — to decide. One suspects few people would pass an undergraduate who proposed answering a research question by surveying less than ten people. Yet, it is this research process that determines the best researchers in economics.
One should note, this committee does consult with people from around the world. But again, the selection is ultimately done by the committee. And it seems having the entire decision made by a few people primarily from one country would hardly result in the best answer to the question: “who is the best?”And this might be one reason why only one woman has ever won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Or that the winners have been almost entirely white males.
Given how this award is determined, what does it really mean? A Nobel Laureate in economics is simply someone who a few people primarily from Sweden decided was best. And then used part of a fortune from a man who helped create explosives to give that person about $1 million dollars.
Of course, it ultimately means more than that to people at the elite institutions. Professors at elite schools are divided between those who have been honored by a few people on the Nobel Committee and those who have not. Those who have been honored are given much more than $1 million. For the rest of their lives, people think they are “best”. And yes, the money is nice. But if academics wanted money, they certainly would have devoted their lives to another occupation. The Nobel Prize isn’t really about the money. It is about the idea that your work is better than other people’s work.
But again, think of the world of sports. If six people got together each year in one town and decided “who is the best” in a sport; would anyone in sports really take that seriously? Would elite athletes be truly thrilled that six people decided they were great? Would other elite athletes be upset they were overlooked?
If the answer is yes, get a few of your friends together and start handing out awards. If anything, it might be an easy way for you to meet your favorite athletes. One suspects, though, this scheme won’t work. Athletes simply won’t be as impressed with your award as academics appear to be. And that would likely still be true even if you gave them a cash prize (unless you were giving out a huge cash prize).
What we see in sports seems to be teaching a lesson for academics. If you are working at an elite school but have been consistently overlooked by the few people on the Nobel Committee, go find six people somewhere to give you an award. Sure, that award probably won’t mean anything. But when we think about how we determine “who is the best” in sports, are we sure the process that determines who wins a Nobel Prize is really a process that would tell anyone who is the best in academia?
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