Nobel economics – the dismal science’s glittering prize

The price is right

Since the Nobel Prize in economics was established 55 years ago, some notable – and at times controversial – names have scooped the annual honour, luminaries such as Milton Friedman, Joseph Stiglitz, and John Forbes Nash, the troubled maths whiz who was portrayed by Russell Crowe to Oscar-winning effect in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind. (One detects a certain trend in Crowe’s career around this time. The previous year he helped popularise Roman numerals in the box office smash Gladiator.)

Given the demi-god status of its premier practitioners today, it’s hard to believe that economics was a late addition to the five fields originally designated by Alfred Nobel for special recognition. Indeed, some detractors claim the economics award isn’t a Nobel Prize at all, considering its origins.

Beginning in 1901, five years after Nobel’s death and in accordance with his will, awards were doled out to individuals whose work in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace, “during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”.

But bankers never miss a trick, so in 1968, to mark its 300th anniversary, Sweden’s central bank decided to get in on the act and provided the funds for a Nobel Prize in economics.


As I say, not everyone has taken kindly to the self-serving gesture. In fact, in 2001 Alfred Nobel’s great-grandnephew Peter Nobel – himself a human rights lawyer – asked the bank to differentiate its award from the other five prizes and to specify that the economics honour was being given “in Alfred Nobel’s memory”.

The bank appears to have met Peter Nobel better than half-way, which should earn him some sort of prize. Since 2006, the award has been officially called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Plus, the bank continues to pay for it.

Over the years, 92 individuals have received the economics prize, which comes with a hefty cheque. As of 2022, only two of the four score and 12 recipients have been women and neither got the award on her own. (Insert your favourite joke about the testosterone-drenched financial world here.)

As for this year’s results, due to be announced in the autumn. If I were casting the deciding vote, the 2023 Nobel Prize in Economics would be a collective honour, awarded to a group of free-market innovators whose shrewd understanding of global economic forces makes the published work of previous winners look like so much mind-numbing windbaggery.

Yes, I’m talking about supermarket managers.

Think about it. Past winners of the Nobel Prize in economics have received their field’s top honour “for the development of the input-output method and for its application to important economic problems” and “for pioneering research into the decision-making process within economic organisations”.

Another was commended “for his contributions to the theory of economic growth”.

Any manager of a mid to large-size Dunnes, Tesco, or SuperValu is surely scratching their head after reading those actual Nobel Prize citations and thinking: “Sure, those are my job specs on a daily basis. Plus, I have to handle sick calls and shoplifters.”

But since the Nobel rules stipulate that no more than three individuals may share an award, I’m going to narrow down my nominees to whoever wants to take credit for the Dunnes Stores €10 Off €50 Voucher Scheme.

This is pure genius in my book, certainly on a par with the achievements of Gary Becker, who won the Nobel Prize in 1984 “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behaviour and interaction, including non-market behaviour”. Sounds to me like Prof Becker was studying the effect on consumers of vouchers, or coupons in the American vernacular.

Granted, I’ve only observed the influence of the Dunnes scheme in one of the chain’s flagship stores, Cornelscourt in Dublin, where countless shoppers like me can be seen each day, pen and list in hand, totting up our purchases to reach a magic multiple of 50.

At the very least, the Dunnes scheme – launched in 2014 and now impossible to revoke – has spurred the other big supermarket retailers to up their promotions game, with some offering similar percentage off discounts.

And even though the cost of the voucher scheme might have initially been high, as a so-called loss-leader, it appears to have paid off. Dunnes market share, according to the latest figures, is marginally ahead of SuperValu, Tesco and Lidl.

So Dunnes Stores, you have my vote for the next Nobel Prize in economics.

Now, can you tell me where you’ve moved the firelighters?