With Elinor Ostrom, Oliver Williamson, US nearly sweeps Nobels

The two economists were awarded Nobel Prizes Monday. Eleven of the 13 Nobel Prizes went to Americans, but that's hardly an endorsement of the country's policies.

Kim White / Reuters
American economist Oliver Williamson poses at his home in Berkeley, California, Monday. Williamson and Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel prize for economics for their work in economic governance.
John Sommers II / Reuters
Elinor Ostrom celebrates winning the Nobel Prize in economics at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, Monday.

The 2009 Nobel Prizes were a great moment for America – or were they?

The last of the Nobel Prizes were awarded Monday to two American economists: Oliver Williamson and Elinor Ostrom (the first woman to win in the category).

In total, 11 of the 13 Nobel Prize winners this year are Americans.

But in some cases, the awards seem as much as rebuke of American policy – past or present – as praise for its citizens.

For their part, Drs. Ostrom and Williamson cast a critical eye on some of the free-market policies that have animated American economic policy and are blamed by many abroad for creating the global recession.

"It's hard to look at the research [by the two Nobel laureates] and not see some connection to concerns raised by the Great Recession," Phil Izzo writes on his Wall Street Journal Blog.

Each seeks to deconstruct one pillar of capitalism. Williamson looks into why corporations exist (to mitigate conflicts, he posits), while Ostrom questions whether privatization is really as necessary as some economists say it is. She says communal societies manage their resources just fine, thank you.

Similarly, some observers say US President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not for his vision, but for "not being George Bush."

The Norwegian committee that decides upon the peace prize insists that its prizes are not political. But Scott London, the co-author of a book on Nobel lectures, disagrees.

"The Norwegians know they have the opportunity to influence world opinion twice a year" – at the announcement of the awards and at the presentation ceremony in December – "and they want to make the most of it," he tells the Wall Street Journal.

The same could be said of the Swedish panel that decides the economic award. Ostrom herself acknowledges that her intent is as much political as economic. She told The New York Times that she wants her research to guide policy on climate change.

Most Americans apparently agree with Mr. London's assessment of the Nobel panel. Some 58 percent believe politics are behind the awards, according to a poll by Rasmussen Reports released Oct. 11.

The mere fact that Americans won all but two of this year's Nobel Prizes carries its own significance, though. (The non-Americans were Israeli Ada Yonath for chemistry and German Herta Müller for literature.)

It is a vindication of the United States as a nation of immigrants, writes Chris O'Brien in the San Jose Mercury-News.

He notes that four of the fist six Americans to be awarded Nobels this year – in physiology and physics – were not Americans when they were born. He writes: "That dynamic neatly summarizes the current state of our innovation economy. We are increasingly dependent on brainpower from overseas that migrates here to drive the research and discoveries we need to power economic growth."


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