The brown near misses of the John Clark Bates Medal

Stanford’s Jonathan Levin won the John Bates Clark Medal a few days ago. Prior to this via Tyler Cowen I noticed a post in The Wall Street Journal blog Real Time Economics mulling the potential winners. Note that this award is given to a prominent economist under the age of 40, and is referred to as the “Baby Nobel” because so many past winners have gone on to win that prize (e.g., Paul Samuelson and Paul Krugman).

Here were the brown possibilities:

Harvard University’s Sendhil Mullainathan is another top choice. Mr. Mullainathan, 38, has been marrying field experiments with behavioral economics to examine problems in the developing world. He is also a founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab with last year’s Clark winner, Esther Duflo, and Abhijit Banerjee. For one paper, he and frequent co-author Marianne Bertrand sent out fictitious resumes in response to want ads, randomly assigning each resume with very African American sounding or very white sounding names. The resumes with the very white names got more call backs. For another paper, he and Ms. Bertrand, Simeon Djankov and Rema Hanna followed 822 people as they went through the process of getting a drivers’ license in Dehli, India, giving some of them cash bonuses and some driving lessons (with a third control group getting neither). The people who got the cash fared best, since they were able to pay bribes.

Mullainathan is a relatively prominent public intellectual, and is already a “MacArthur Genius”. So I was curious as to his biography, and found this:

In his short life Mullainathan has seen a lot of poverty and hard times. Born in Chennai, he grew up in a small village in Tamil Nadu — Kozhiyum — with his mother and paternal grandfather. (He still keeps in touch with his boyhood friends who are sharecroppers and earn meager wages.)

Makes you wonder about a world where a Harvard economics professor can have boyhood friends who are Indian peasants. There was also a promising future candidate on the list:

Finally, many economists consider Harvard’s Raj Chetty, an expert on the effects of tax and social insurance programs, the most talented economist of his generation. But at just 31 he may be too young to be considered for the Clark just yet.

Best of luck to both in the future! Though with their current accomplishments it seems unlikely that luck will be needed at this point.

6 thoughts on “The brown near misses of the John Clark Bates Medal

  1. I commend Sendhil for his contribution in uncovering racism in the USA. However, this is far too easy of a task to do, pals. I was just thinking of a new form of “appearance”-ism. Although employers and renters will rent out to whites much more frequently than they do to people of color, there are institutions – such as very prominent and prestigious companies – who only hire good looking people with managerial presence. Another words, companies like Genzyme would rather hire a 6′ African-American rather than a 5’7″ white guy with pimples. Organizing a study on this would pose more challenges, I think.

  2. I guess this isn’t directly related but Avinash Dixit, though not young, is also a renowned Princeton economist who was considered to be a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize in Economics in 08. It went to Krugman in the end.

  3. Surprised to know about this village called “Kozhiyum” in Tamilnadu. I could not locate it. And kozhi is the tamil word for hen and has now become the favorite meat.

    I don’t think he would have personally experienced poverty / hard time (unlikely given his dad was doing his Ph.D in the US).

  4. Boston,

    You are tough! Sendhil might not have got his PhD if you had been on his advisor committee!

  5. cool i did some work funded by PAL last summer around madras slums but didn’t know the sendhil link.