Chicago’s Gentzkow Wins John Bates Clark Young Economist Award

Matthew Gentzkow, a University of Chicago professor, won the American Economic Association’s John Bates Clark young economist award for his work explaining the role of economics in the news media.

Gentzkow, 38, was honored for his contribution to “understanding of the economic forces driving the creation of media products, the changing nature and role of media in the digital environment, and the effect of media on education and civic engagement,” the AEA said on its website yesterday.

Started in 1947 as a biennial prize, the medal is now being awarded annually to the American economist under 40 who is judged to have made “the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge,” according to the association. Recipients of the medal have about a one-in-three chance of eventually winning the Nobel Prize in economics, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Gentzkow is a “path-breaking scholar,” said Austan Goolsbee, who was the chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2010 to 2011.

“His work is defined by almost unprecedentedly grand ambition in terms of gathering data and analyzing it in ways that even 15 years ago were just not conceivable,” added Goolsbee, who is now a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

In a 2010 paper with fellow University of Chicago professor Jesse Shapiro, Gentzkow found that newspapers were more likely to slant their coverage in response to the preferences of their readers than to those of their owners.

Partisan Phrases

Using the Congressional Record, they came up with phrases that were particular to Republican and Democratic Party lawmakers -- “death taxes” for the former and “wildlife refuge” for the latter, for example -- and then searched newspapers for those words to determine the media slant. They then compared that with the readership and the ownership of the papers.

Gentzkow and Shapiro also looked into the so-called Internet “echo chamber,” where people of similar political persuasion talked solely to one another while online. They didn’t find much evidence it was widespread, lessening concern that the Internet will increase ideological polarization.

In a separate paper, the two concluded that viewing television didn’t have a negative impact on children. The research made use of the fact that television was introduced at differing times throughout the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s.

“It’s been a tremendous partnership,” Gentzkow said of his work with Shapiro. “This award really belongs to him as much as to me.”

Broader Questions

He said in an interview that he got “excited” about studying the media because it allowed him to research the economics of the industry while also looking at broader political and social questions.

In his more recent work, the University of Chicago professor has begun to investigate why health-care spending varies so much across the country and to look into the value of product brands.

Gentzkow “is a brilliant and innovative economist who pioneered the creation of the novel and critically important field of media economics,”  Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in an e-mail.

Gentzkow was educated at Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1997. He then took time off from school and moved to Maine, where he and his friends started a small theater company, before returning to Harvard to earn a master’s degree in 2002 and a Ph.D. in economics in 2004. He joined the faculty of the University of Chicago’s Booth School in 2004.

Past Winners

Past winners of the John Bates Clark award include the late Milton Friedman, New York Times columnist and Princeton University professor Paul Krugman, and Lawrence Summers, former director of Obama’s National Economic Council.

Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist whose work focuses on taxation, social insurance and education policy, won the medal last year.

The award is named after the U.S. economist, who died in 1938 after spending most of his career teaching at Columbia University in New York.

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