What if Nobel Prize winners ran the country?

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Sunday, October 24, 2010; B04

The Obama administration seems to like Nobel Prizes. The president has one. So does his energy secretary. So does a recent nominee to the Federal Reserve Board. And though White House science adviser John Holdren didn't win one himself, he led an organization that did. So, could the president put together an all-Nobel Cabinet? Well, its members would be fairly old, for one, and probably prone to disagreements. Here's what a Stockholm-approved "team of rivals" might look like -- and what it might do.


Barack Obama

He received the 2009 peace prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy." Still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan a year after his surprise win, Obama has yet to show he's the one the Swedes were counting on.


Elie Wiesel

He won the peace prize in 1986; the committee said that "his message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity." The Holocaust survivor could focus attention on ethnic warfare in Sudan and elsewhere, but his advocacy for Israel could make him controversial when engaging the Muslim world.


Edward Prescott

He was a co-winner of the 2004 economics prize for his "contributions to dynamic macroeconomics: the time consistency of economic policy and the driving forces behind business cycles." Prescott would be skeptical of massive government spending to stimulate the economy. He'd also want to keep the Bush tax cuts in place to spur investment and boost productivity.


Thomas Schelling

He won the joint prize in economics in 2005 for "having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis." In his research, Schelling masterfully sketched out Cold War nuclear strategy. He could apply his game-theory approach to 21st-century threats such as terrorism and cyber-attacks.


Gary Becker

Becker, who won the 1992 prize in economics for "having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior," used economics to understand what motivates and deters crime. He found that harsher punishments can be a more effective way to enforce the law than investing huge sums of money in policing and courts.

Health and Human Services

Elizabeth Blackburn

A prolific cancer researcher, she shared the medicine prize in 2009 for helping discover "how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase." She could ensure that science underpinned the nation's health-care decisions, but her aggressive support of embryonic stem cell research might alienate some.


Elinor Ostrom

She was a co-winner of the economics prize in 2009 for "her analysis of economic governance." A political scientist, Ostrom studies how people share common resources such as land and advocates local autonomy.


Richard Heck

Heck won the chemistry prize this year. He and his colleagues have developed chemical processes that can create substances to protect crops from disease. He would have a keen eye for agricultural companies adding dangerous chemicals to the nation's food supply.


Paul Krugman

The New York Times columnist won the economics prize in 2008 for "his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity." Krugman founded "new trade theory," explaining why countries that make the same types of goods trade with each other anyway and benefit from it. Though he might grumble about not running Treasury, he'd probably push for more aggressive policies ensuring that U.S. companies can easily sell to emerging markets such as China.


Peter Diamond

He shared the economics Nobel this year for his "analysis of markets with search frictions." His research shows the need to return the unemployed to work soon after a financial crisis, before their job losses become permanent. He'd probably prefer a more permanent job himself -- Obama has nominated Diamond to the Fed, where he'd serve 14 years. Until he can clear the Senate, though, he should take what he can get.

Housing and Urban Development

Jimmy Carter

He won the 2002 peace prize for "his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts." The 39th president, a carpenter, is the most famous "Habit for Humanity" volunteer and could work to expand housing for millions of Americans living in low-quality homes.


Al Gore

The former vice president and 2007 peace prize winner for "efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change" has called for eliminating the internal combustion engine. He would be keen to oversee the eco-friendly transformation of the nation's transportation systems, but his heavy investments in green technology could pose a conflict of interest.


Steven Chu

A 1997 co-laureate in physics "for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light," Chu is an engineer who advocates a clean-tech future that reduces the effects of climate change. And he already has the job.


Toni Morrison

Morrison, "in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality," according to the Nobel committee, which awarded her the literature prize in 1993. The only living American Nobel laureate for literature would ensure that students read the classics, learn to love books and are exposed to America's diverse cultures.

Veterans Affairs

Jody Williams

She won the peace prize in 1997 for her work "for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines." Williams has spent decades working to protect civilians from the long-term effects of war and might be equally passionate on behalf of new veterans who have lost limbs or suffered traumatic brain injury. But her peace activism could turn off security hawks.

Homeland Security

Henry Kissinger

He won the 1973 peace prize for "a ceasefire agreement . . . between the United States of America and the Vietnamese Democratic Republic." A pragmatist first, Kissinger would favor strong national security policies but might be willing to talk with America's enemies. As an immigrant himself, he might support novel approaches to border issues.

Zachary A. Goldfarb covers financial policy for The Washington Post.

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