I do not like awards. They always create jealousies, and one cannot help that whenever a committee is involved, something may not have gone right. I am thus quite happy that economists give very few awards. It makes their CVs look bad compared to other scientists, but that is the price for a relative peace in the profession.
But we still have some prizes. The Nobel one, which is not really part of the Nobel family but is still attributed much prestige is always under much scrutiny. And in the end, the right people tend to win it. There have been a few controversial cases, Myrdal, Hayek, Buchanan and Ostrom come to mind as example where quite a few eyebrows were raised, but overall this award works well.
The American Economic Association gives an award that is considered to be even more difficult to get than the Nobel Prize: the Clark Medal, given to an American aged under 40. It is difficult to get because only one is awarded every year (no joint winners) and until recently it was given every second year. When comparing to the Nobel Prize, it is relevant to understand that American get a vast majority of them.
Now let us have a look at the past few year for the Clark award:
2011: Jonathan Levin, PhD MIT, Faculty at Stanford
2010: Esther Duflo, PhD MIT, Faculty at MIT
2009: Emmanuel Saez, PhD MIT, Faculty Harvard then Berkeley
2007: Susan Athey, PhD Stanford, Faculty at MIT then Stanford and Harvard
2005: Daron Acemoglu, PhD LSE, Faculty at MIT
2003: Steven Levitt, PhD MIT, Fellow at Harvard then faculty at Chicago
2001: Matthew Rabin, PhD MIT, Faculty at Berkeley
1999: Andrei Shleifer, PhD MIT, Faculty at Princeton, Chicago and Harvard
Do you see a pattern? Well I do, and others have, too. I am not saying these awardees are not bright and promising economists, but is there really no other qualifying economists that could have received it? Of course, John List comes to mind, who has no connection with MIT (or Harvard). But it actually worse than that. The award is given by a small committee, designated by the AEA. The AEA leadership is stacked with people with MIT and Harvard connections, so they also nominate their friends to the various committees, and you see the result.
It is even worse. In 2010, Ester Duflo was considered to be in the pool of strong candidates for the award. Guess who was on the awarding committee? Abhijit Banerjee, her PhD advisor, frequent co-author and colleague at MIT. In such a situation, an ethical person would decline the invitation to serve on the committee. That does not seem to have crossed the mind of Banerjee, who may be used to this cronyism.
There is another award, this time given by the European Economic Association: the Yrjö Jahnsson Award, to an European economist under age 45. It is given every two years, but can have several recipients. This awards has looked much cleaner because the committees and awardees have been distributed all over Europe. Europeans are indeed very sensitive to this. The last one was a shocker, though. Armin Falk won it to the surprise of many. And guess who chaired the awarding committee? His advisor, Ernst Fehr. Again, ethics would have indicated that if Falk had a chance of winning it, Fehr should have recused himself not just from chairing the committee, but from participating in it. In retrospect, this is not Fehr's first wrongdoing: two years earlier he was also on the committee when Fabrizio Zilibotti co-won the award. Zilibotti is a colleague of Fehr in Zurich.
I think we should do away with these two awards. It simply does not work.