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Nobel in Economics Yet Another for Prize-laden University of Chicago


One of the world’s most influential schools of economics has done it again.

The nearly 120-year-old University of Chicago, once the academic home of free-market advocates such as Milton Friedman, can boast of yet another Nobel prize in economics.

With Monday’s naming of University of Chicago professor Roger B. Myerson as one of three winners of this year’s prize, the school claims ties to 24 Nobel prize winners in economics more than a third of the 61 individuals so honored since the first Nobel in the field was given in 1969.

Academics and admirers credit a combination of factors, including the school’s ability to peg and recruit up-and-coming economics stars and its tradition of grooming fiercely independent thinkers who in their relative Midwest isolation aren’t shy about challenging prevailing trends.

“Good ideas eventually get recognized, and Chicago has produced more than any other university,” said David Boaz, an executive vice president at the Cato Institute, a free-market oriented think tank in Washington, D.C.

Part of the explanation for the school’s influence and fame in recent decades is that many of its economists like Friedman, who won in 1976 began advocating free-market prescriptions as far back as the mid-20th century, when the notion of unfettered markets was distinctly out of favor in government and academia.

So when movements to reduce the role of government in the economy began to take hold in the ’70s and ’80s, led by politicians like Ronald Reagan, the stature of University of Chicago economists like Friedman soared.

Today, policy makers in fledgling markets from Eastern Europe to China look for guidance to “the Chicago school,” a direct reference to the University of Chicago and the hands-off economic policies many of its economists have promoted.

But it is the dry, meticulous research not the politics it’s inspired that’s the focus of those who select Nobel winners.

And professors at the Chicago school say they do nitty-gritty economics better than anyone.

“I think that our Chicago economists don’t think the Holy Grail of economics is to work in Washington,” said Gary Becker, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in economics and who still teaches at the University of Chicago. “It’s more important to do work with your colleagues rather than be tapped to go to Washington.”

Derek Neal, a current economics professor at the school, agreed, saying Friedman was the exception of a university economist becoming popular; and he noted Friedman had done decades of scholarly work in the shadows before his fame.

“People here understand it’s not your job to be on the cover of Time magazine or to be the secretary of blank in Washington,” Neal said. “The insistence is that everyone’s job is to be a scholar first and only. Everyone is encouraged to keep pressing at the frontiers of economic science.”

Even so, some Nobel winners claimed by the university pressed elsewhere. Myerson said everything noted in his Nobel citation is work he did during 25 years at Northwestern University, located just north of Chicago.

“It was one of the best places in the world to do it,” Myerson told reporters on the University of Chicago campus Monday. “This is a fabulous place to work also. … This place has been, from the beginning … a place that was determined to cultivate ideas. And in many fields it does it very, very well.”

Some cite as a deeply ingrained tradition at the university of colleagues coldly and thoroughly poring over and criticizing each other’s research no matter how acclaimed or popular the researcher.

“At Chicago, when you finish presenting a paper, smart people start taking pot shots at it, trying to find the mistakes, trying to find the weak points,” Boaz said. “Chicago professors have to produce good ideas because they have so many other smart professors who will shoot down imprecise, unfocused ideas.”

Going back decades, the Chicago economists were far more willing than most schools to buck fashionable economic theories thanks to its distance from more conformist East-coast schools, Johan Van Overtveldt argues in his new book, “The Chicago School: How the University of Chicago Assembled the Thinkers Who Revolutionized Economics and Business.”

And, just as fame tends to breed more fame, Nobels seem to breed more Nobels.

Jorgen Weibull, chairman of the economics prize committee, alluded to just that in comments in Stockholm Monday.

He said each Nobel award probably reinforces the University of Chicago’s reputation and helps it attract still more talented researchers in the field.

“If you have a rainfall of Nobel memorial prizes . . . then of course those are visible signs for young researchers when they are deciding where to go,” he said.

But Weibull insisted the prize committee doesn’t favor any university over another.

“What we do is to identify the most important contributions, irrespective of where they come from,” he said.

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