The Nobel memorial prize in economics has been awarded to Paul Krugman, a professor at Princeton University and a prominent columnist for the New York Times. Mr Krugman is one of the great popularisers of economic ideas and a trenchant critic of the Bush administration, but his prize was awarded for work done almost three decades ago in developing what is known as “new trade theory” and “new economic geography”.
Earlier trade theories suggested that a country would trade with trading partners that were very different – rich would trade with poor, and capital-intensive would trade with labour-intensive. In practice, rich countries tend to trade with other rich countries. Mr Krugman’s analysis showed why this was to be expected: many products were most efficiently produced by very large companies, but consumers wanted variety and would thus buy products from foreign giants as well as the dominant domestic corporations. Mr Krugman’s ideas on the importance of economies of scale could be traced all the way back to Adam Smith, but the new ingredient was a usable mathematical description of what was going on.
Economic geography uses much the same mathematics to explain the location of jobs and businesses. Mr Krugman showed that the forces of globalisation, far from creating a “flat world”, could enhance the power of global cities such as New York and London, because those cities could increasingly do business with a global market.
Mr Krugman has long been seen as a future Nobel laureate. He won the John Bates Clark medal for young economists in 1991, an award which is often a precursor to a Nobel. Yet if the choice is not surprising, the timing – just before the US Presidential election – might be. Mr Krugman is an influential and partisan political commentator. His columns, first in Slate and then the New York Times, were at first clever refutations of popular misconceptions about trade protection or the “new economy”, but they have become far more notable for their stinging attacks on the Bush administration. He has recently criticised Hank Paulson, the US treasury secretary, for mishandling the credit crisis, while praising the British government for being “willing to think clearly about the financial crisis, and act quickly on its conclusions.” He also warned of the US housing bubble in the summer of 2005.
This is, however, not the first time that the Nobel prize committee has recognised an economist with a public profile and an appetite for political debate. Joseph Stiglitz shared the prize in 2001, after a combative stint as chief economist of the World Bank; Milton Friedman was an early laureate in 1976.
Among professional economists, Mr Krugman is admired for his work on currency crises as well as the work on trade that won the prize. A Princeton colleague, Avinash Dixit, once described Krugman’s methods: “He spots an important economic issues coming down the pike months or years before anyone else. Then he constructs a little model of it, which offers some new and unexpected insight. Soon the issue reaches general attention, and Krugman’s model is waiting for other economists to catch up.”
Mr Krugman’s trade model showed that there were circumstances in which trade protection could be in a nation’s economic interest. This idea was joyfully embraced by protectionists, and Mr Krugman spent much of the 1990s vigorously defending free trade and arguing that trade protection in practice was almost always harmful. The experience may have fuelled his enthusiasm for economic popularisation, although even his early writing betrayed a wit and clarity not common amongst economists: he wrote, in 1978, “A theory of interstellar trade”, commenting that it was “a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics.”
The economics prize was not one of the original Nobel prizes. It was established in 1968 by the Swedish central bank and is officially called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The prize money is 10 million Swedish Kronor (£810,000; $1.4m; euro1m).
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