Alternative MacArthurs

by Henry on September 29, 2015

So the MacArthur ‘genius’ awards were announced today; I’ve always thought of them as tottering on a Bourdieuian knife-edge between two different kinds of legitimation. On the one hand, they are supposed to have consequences, to publicly recognize people who would otherwise be less well known, and giving them financial and symbolic support that they can then go on to use to do good and wonderful things. This means that it would be weird to give one e.g. to someone like Paul Krugman, who already is doing very nicely in terms of public recognition. On the other, they are supposed to go to people who are creative and brilliant – but in socially legitimated ways so as to maintain the status of the award. This means that they are unlikely to go to genuinely unsung geniuses, not simply because the selection process can’t find brilliance if it isn’t publicly well known, but because the legitimacy of the awards partly depends on their social validation by a variety of elite networks.

Hence, for example, we get today’s decision to give an award to Ta-Nehisi Coates. In one sense this is unquestionably awesome – Coates is fantastic. However, it would be unquestionably much more awesomer if they had given an award to Coates five years before, or gave it today to someone where Coates was five years ago. But the sociology of the process doesn’t seem to be set up to do that – like most institutions, it gravitates towards safe choices. A more risky symbolic venture capital approach – say giving grants to people earlier in their career in the expectation that 80% of them will flame out, 10% will do well, and 10% will be just wonderful would probably not be sustainable over the longer term (or at the least, it would make the prizes very different in status and connotation). Hence the current set up, which I suspect is mostly aimed to support safe bets – people who are either famous or very well regarded in their specific discipline – with perhaps a couple of riskier ones thrown in here and there, where they really strike fire with one of the selectors.

So if we were giving out awards rather than the actual selection committee, who would we give them to? It’s not likely, but it is possible that actual real people involved in the selection process will read this (Crooked Timber doesn’t have Vox-level readership, but it does have its own odd forms of cultural capital; stranger things have happened). So it’s possible that this thread could have consequences. Comments are open. My own two nominees (I can think of other very deserving candidates, but they’re personal friends; I’m also sure I’ll kick myself about all the people I should have mentioned as soon as I’ve posted this) would be Astra Taylor and Tom Slee. Both are writers in the hinterlands between technology and culture, neither is so high profile as to be a likely candidate at the moment. But both are just fantastic – brilliant writers (and in Taylor’s case, documentary maker and musician too) who could do wonderful things with MacArthur level exposure. Who else?

{ 90 comments }

1

Matt 09.29.15 at 3:54 pm

I’d give one to Rush Sturges, a professional kayaker, and, more importantly, a really interesting film maker. Even the top pro kayakers make tiny bits of money and usually have to have other full time jobs, and the sorts of films that Sturges makes with his River Roots company are not really commercial, either. But, they are really neat. He’s someone who could do some great stuff with the money and independence. (Another person who is similar in the Kayaking world would be <a href="Steve Fisher, but as Fisher is more established, I’d favor Sturges.)

2

Jordan Ellenberg 09.29.15 at 4:06 pm

Slee and Taylor seem to me like the exact kind of people the current committee might plausibly give awards to!

My alternative committee would give one to William Stein, who is working with tireless energy without much publicity or institutional support to build universal, checkable, open-source math software.

http://sagemath.blogspot.com/2015/09/funding-open-source-mathematical.html

Or Daniel Pinkwater, on “lifetime achievement / no one else is like him / he is probably not rolling in dough despite all his contributions” grounds.

Or Eugene Mirman, because I just have a feeling he would do something kind of amazing with it.

3

ben w 09.29.15 at 5:02 pm

They do salt and pepper the awards with people who are, if already well known, only well known in small communities, though, like this guy: https://www.macfound.org/fellows/745/

4

Bill Benzon 09.29.15 at 5:09 pm

Ah, you’ve hit on one of my pet peeves. The sure sign that the system is set up to pick safe bets is that half or more of the awards go to people who’ve got secure jobs at prestigious institutions (usually tenure at a top-level school). The system by which people get those kinds of jobs is, of course, relatively conservative.

For example, in the first year, 1981, one of the awards went to Robert Penn Warren. As I say in my “expose” of the Big Macs, The Genius Chronicles:
Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before?
:

At 76 he was the oldest member of that first class and something of a flagship. He’d won pretty near every literary prize except the Nobel, including three Pulitzers, one for fiction and two for poetry, making him the only person ever to win for both fiction and poetry. He was cofounder of The Southern Review, had written textbooks that had seen decades of use in undergraduate literature courses, and had one of his novels, All the King’s Men, made into a major Hollywood movie. It won an Oscar back in 1949. In 1986 he became the first Poet Laureate of the United States.

It’s hard to imagine a more thoroughly established man of letters than Robert Penn Warren. Maybe he was bleeding edge and interdisciplinary in 1935, but not in 1981. By then his pioneering days were long gone. No, the committee who gave this distinguished man a MacArthur either didn’t have a clue about creativity or knew it well enough and didn’t approve of it.

In a NYTimes article in 1997 one Waldemar Nielsen, who had once directed programs for the Ford Foundation, said the program mostly generated publicity for the foundation. In 2012 the foundation’s total budget was $212.2 million of which the fellows program was $11.8 million, or just under 6%. The program is small enough that the foundation can treat it as an overhead expense, as publicity if you will.

I think they should just stop giving awards to people who have secure jobs at good institutions. Those people can function; they’ve got an income that doesn’t depend on waiting tables, temp word processing, real estate sales, or some other such gig. Fat chance, however.

You’re right about Coates. Gifting him five years ago would have been great. Gifting him now just gives credibility to the Foundation.

As for who should they gift next, how about Mark Changizi? He’s a mathematician and theoretical psychologist who quite his academic gig at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute just before getting tenure on the hopes that he and a friend could make it as inventors. He said at the time that academia just wasn’t a good institutional setting for a theoretical psychologist. I thought his book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, had some of the most interesting and original research I’d read on music, mostly, and language.

Sean Roberts, who blogs at Replicated Typo, is an impressive young researcher in linguistics. He’s currently at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. That’s certainly a prestigious gig, though I don’t know if they have such a thing as tenure. If they do, he’s probably too young to have it.

If I thought a bit I could probably come up with the names of some graffiti writers. No, not Banksey. And anyhow, aside from the fact that’s he’s thoroughly established, he doesn’t do graffiti.

5

Theophylact 09.29.15 at 5:36 pm

He’s a personal friend of mine, but I can hardly imagine anyone more worthy than Mohamed U. Zakariya, not only for his art, but also for his scholarship, his generous teaching, and his active ecumenism.

6

SamChevre 09.29.15 at 5:45 pm

My nominee: Betsy Phillips (Aunt B) at Tiny Cat Pants.

Some of my favorites of her writing:

On Harold Ford

On Isaac Franklin and Andrew Jackson

And my favorite of her short fiction.

7

Bill Benzon 09.29.15 at 5:45 pm

Whoops! I believe that recipients have to be US citizens. I suspect that leaves Sean Roberts out.

8

Henry (not the famous one) 09.29.15 at 5:54 pm

No mention of the Nobel effect? Or, the “we didn’t think he was going to bomb Libya into a stateless mess” problem? Giving someone an award too young can be counterproductive, particularly in the artistic fields (insert Mascagni’s line here) and giving someone an award based on what you think he or she will do but hasn’t done yet is pretty foolhardy for anyone. I say give the award to (1) scientists who have made some real strides in research and/or practical application of that knowledge or both, e.g., https://www.macfound.org/fellows/492/ (using the organizational models of the Highlander School and others to work with smallholders in reducing pesticides through IPM) and (2) artists and activists who are doing more or less the same thing. Coates deserves it.

9

oldster 09.29.15 at 7:03 pm

Hmmm: young person with no institutional affiliation, not a safe bet, but decent chance of going on to do genius work? Bit of a long shot, not widely known, not part of the establishment?

Look, you don’t have to beat around the bush and write long posts about it: it’s obvious what you are hinting at.

And I agree! I’m not denying it: Belle Waring should be given a MacArthur!

Wouldn’t it have been easier just to say that in the title of your OP?

10

Bill Benzon 09.29.15 at 7:13 pm

“Belle Waring should be given a MacArthur!”

Hmmmm…….

11

Salem 09.29.15 at 7:34 pm

Scott Sumner, for all the obvious reasons.
Cyle Barnes.
Holden Karnofsky.

12

Mdc 09.29.15 at 7:38 pm

They should definitely be given to no one who is not a graphic novelist.

13

Gareth Wilson 09.29.15 at 7:39 pm

I don’t have anyone specific in mind, but I’m interested that the criteria is “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work…” There’s nothing in there about political acceptability or general respectability. I’d love to suggest some Klansman, Rabid Puppy, or MRA who genuinely qualifies and have an argument about why they shouldn’t get it. But there aren’t any. I suppose the closest examples are Stephenie Meyer or Chris Brown.

14

SamChevre 09.29.15 at 7:45 pm

Also, Randall Munroe.

15

Trader Joe 09.29.15 at 7:50 pm

I hear the point on Coates and agree it would be cool to have seen him on the list a few years ago…that said, it seems like he’s more an example of including someone who is at least a little bit known in order to draw attention to the overall list and give (presumably deserved) recognition to all of the other winners.

The fact is, if he hadn’t been on the list, most likely we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all.

I always thought Arthur Phillips was deserving

16

Roger Gathman 09.29.15 at 8:02 pm

I don’t understand how the Macarthur people, year after year, have skipped the artistic phenomenon that will one day be remembered when all the American presidents are as forgotten as the 15th century doges of Venice. I’m talking of course about the Simpsons. Who, lets face it, tower over Titian and Tintoretto. Is it too late to give Matt Groenig the prize? I mean really.

17

oldster 09.29.15 at 8:08 pm

pro-Coates, there is also the fact that he is still pretty young (39). And despite having a solid publishing record and decent public visibility, he has nothing like institutional security.

No, if you want to build a case that the MacArthurs play it too safe, I think Robert Penn Warren is your poster child, not Ta-Nehisi Coates.

18

Shawn 09.29.15 at 8:16 pm

Given that he’s a medical doctor the money might not mean as much, but I think there are few writers as thoughtful, talented, or delightfully idiosyncratic as Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. He’s well-known within certain circles, but the MacArthur spotlight would definitely mean more for him than it does for a TNC.

19

JanieM 09.29.15 at 8:32 pm

We oldsters think alike: I too thought of Belle as soon as I read the post.

20

Dean C. Rowan 09.29.15 at 8:39 pm

When I think MacArthur fellowships, I think Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, and Ken Vandermark,. Vandermark was 35 when he took the award, Braxton and Zorn were older. Vandermark was probably (and likely remains) the least well known of the three. On a spectrum of celebrity (as a proxy for career security), the post stands for the fair assumption that Krugman > Coates > Braxton or Zorn > Vandermark. Were Braxton and Zorn risky awardees or safe bets? Well, they were neither, really. One imagines they enjoyed a certain level of security in their careers, but they also hadn’t captured anything approaching the institutional level of respect afforded Krugman. So is Coates more like Krugman or Braxton/Zorn in this respect? It would have been nice if Zorn had won the award five years earlier. What happened during those five years that cemented his value to MacArthur? (Not a rhetorical question.)

21

Metatone 09.29.15 at 9:00 pm

I’m with those who would ban tenured professors from the list.
(Or if not completely, make it exceptional.)
The publicity works for anyone, but the money makes a real difference to those without a secure position.

22

SC 09.29.15 at 9:03 pm

Oh, wow. Jinx. I read the MacArthur list this morning and thought . . . the arts, at least, are safe bets, boring, and unlikely to make much noise in the future. Why didn’t, say, Astra Taylor win one? So, I second Astra. I’d also nominate Nico Muhly, Michael Lerner (the principal of Bard High School Early College and author of Dry Manhattan), and Margaret Brown (documentary film).

23

Ronan(rf) 09.29.15 at 9:03 pm

I’m not sure of the research/status criteria for the MacArthur, so am not being facetious, but if it’s to go on to ” to do good and wonderful things” I’d like to see margaret paxson with the resources to expand on this

http://wilsonquarterly.com/stories/precipices/

(Also aeon magazine December 2012 “what is peace”)

24

GHG 09.29.15 at 9:14 pm

I came to Crooked Timber today directly after reading this piece by Thomas Frank on the MacArthurs:
http://thebaffler.com/blog/phone-rings-genius-cult

I would nominate Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Really.

25

Bill Benzon 09.29.15 at 9:17 pm

@Ronan, #20: On status, FWIW, Skip Gates was in the first cohort (along with Robert Penn Warren and Stephen Wolfram and others), but it didn’t get him tenure at Yale.

But that’s perhaps not what you had in mind. That was about the status of the grant itself (in the first year). I rather doubt that there are anything like fixed criteria for evaluating candidates. I’d think network considerations matter more: who knows whom, etc.

@Dean C. Rowan: “…is Coates more like Krugman or Braxton/Zorn in this respect?”. Well, he doesn’t have a Nobel (presumably in literature). But he’s much more visible than Braxton or Zorn. At this point he may be as visible as Krugman, but without the academic credentials. After all, he’s been writing for The Atlantic for years and has been profiled in the NYTimes magazine and other places.

26

The Temporary Name 09.29.15 at 9:17 pm

I would nominate Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Really.

Certainly a genius in the sense of being an animating spirit.

27

Ben 09.29.15 at 9:19 pm

Dean C. Rowan,

I always thought Zorn’s art space in New York he started in 2005 had a lot to do with accelerating his cultural cache; he got Lou Reed, Madeski Martin & Wood etc. performances in pretty short order. But maybe the cache allowed him to set up the space.

(Pointless fanboy wank: everyone should sit front row at a Ken Vandermark set at least once in their lives. Holy hell is that a time.)

My votes for grantees: Shane Carruth, Mallory Ortberg, Ryan North, Matthea Harvey

28

Chris Bertram 09.29.15 at 9:33 pm

See also Kieran’s piece from 2012:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2012/10/macarthur_genius_grant_five_reasons_you_didn_t_win_one_again_.html

Lynsey Addario whose book I posted on the other day.

My nominee, Lisa Herzog.

29

steven johnson 09.29.15 at 10:15 pm

Peter Turchin

30

Anderson 09.29.15 at 10:16 pm

I like the way they do it. Some newish folks, some just hitting it, some in late career.

And FUCK YEAH, Belle should be on that list! Let’s figure out how the nominations work, people. Let’s make this happen.

31

Bill Benzon 09.29.15 at 10:21 pm

“Peter Turchin” – To which I’d add Harvey Whitehouse (a sometime collaborator of Turchin’s), except that he’s British.

32

PJW 09.29.15 at 11:13 pm

Cormac McCarthy was a notable and worthy recipient in 1981, the money from the fellowship helping him finish his masterpiece Blood Meridian, which was published in 1985.

33

Luke 09.29.15 at 11:36 pm

Second vote for Nardwuar the Human Serviette.

34

SC 09.29.15 at 11:40 pm

Sadly, Nardwuar the Human Serviette will have to settle for an Order of Canada.

35

Peter Dorman 09.29.15 at 11:48 pm

It’s interesting that there hasn’t been an outpouring (yet) of suggestions for social theory/social science types, given the general orientation of CT. Who are the lesser known but creative people in this realm who need the support and exposure of macfounddotorg?

36

Garrulous 09.30.15 at 12:23 am

Edward Snowden would be an interesting choice. Harmony Korine.

37

Lyle 09.30.15 at 1:13 am

Allie Brosh
Randall Munroe
Molly Crabapple

Also, has any else here read recipient Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04? I got through it, but couldn’t figure what all the fuss is about. Struck me as a bit… precious.

38

Jordan Ellenberg 09.30.15 at 1:30 am

I love 10:04 so much — mercilessly self-regarding, self-assessing, self-blaming. A lot of self? Yes. A lot of novels have a lot of self. Also, funny. Would have been the best novel I read this year if I hadn’t reread The Age of Innocence.

39

merian 09.30.15 at 1:41 am

Cathy O’Neill

re: #18, Gareth Wilson: This type of person won’t “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work…”. Except if merit and promise and continued and enhanced apply to exceptional achievement in sociopathy. (I don’t like the “pathy” flavour of the term here, so let’s say, destruction and harm.)

40

PJW 09.30.15 at 2:41 am

Artist/writer Peter Josyph.

Medievalist Jeffrey J. Cohen of George Washington University.

41

patrick 09.30.15 at 3:24 am

Yasmin Nair

42

Rakesh 09.30.15 at 3:25 am

@34. Of course the Crooked Timber choice for social theory/social science type would be David Graeber. Also Branko Milanovic, I think, initially received a warm welcome here.

43

Spiny Norman 09.30.15 at 3:46 am

As a biomedical scientist, I suggest that they not give it to biomedical scientists. We already have a LOT of awards with comparable cachet and money (half a million dollars, giver or take). Pew, Searle, American Cancer Society, American Heart Ass’n., Packard, etc., etc., etc. There are enough of these awards that they are not that hard to get (even I have one, for chrissakes). And we have NIH, HHMI, Gates Foundation, etc. Yes, we’re suffering for funding (because the GOP has contempt for reality) but we need real money — not the kind of tinpot funding that MacArthur offers. And honestly, the choices for MacArthurs for biomedical scientists have been extremely conservative. Most have already gotten one or more of the other awards listed above, or comparables. To good people, yes. But “geniuses”?

If they’re going to give MacArthurs in the life sciences, give them in areas that are catastrophically under-funded but where spectacular work is being done. Conservation biology. Evolutionary biology. Restoration ecology. Taxonomy. Areas where a “small” grant by NIH standards can make a genuinely transformative difference.

44

Tom Slee 09.30.15 at 3:47 am

I second merian #38’s suggestion of Cathy O’Neill. For those who don’t know, she blogs at http://mathbabe.org/ and has a book coming out sometime about data science and its politics. Plus, I’ve heard her talk and she is both clear and entertaining on important subjects.

And I third Astra Taylor: anyone who can write, make films, organize movements, and play in a band deserves a windfall and she seems to do them all very well (tho I admit I’ve never heard her music).

Also, one of my favourite books by a non-famous person recently was Sandra Newman’s “The Country of Ice Cream Star” and someone should give her a pile money to write some more like that.

(And thanks Henry for the mention, fanciful as it is.)

45

geo 09.30.15 at 4:00 am

I think they should go to people who have done/are doing/look like they’ll do great work and either don’t have secure, well-paying jobs or need extra money for a special project (or both, of course).

I’ve always rooted for Russell Jacoby and Vivian Gornick to get one. Also Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch.

46

Meredith 09.30.15 at 4:02 am

As a few others have suggested, quite a few MacArthurs go to people not widely known and not expected to become widely known (a la Coates). For instance, this year to the poet Ellen Voigt. A colleague of mine got one in the early years (she studies birds and birdsong); I gather she continues to be highly regarded among fellow biologist ornithologists but is hardly a household name.

47

Glen Tomkins 09.30.15 at 4:31 am

If it’s unsung you’re looking for, I don’t think anyone fits that bill any better than yours truly. I’m such a standout in that criterion that it should go far in making up for my deficiencies in the actually being a genius criterion.

48

sc 09.30.15 at 5:05 am

it’s never too late to give one to Assata Shakur, i suppose…

49

Dean C. Rowan 09.30.15 at 5:07 am

It strikes me that what’s wrong, if anything, with MacArthur et al. is simply the fact that the awards are presented as awards. We should banish awards. There are lots of efforts worth subsidizing and lots of achievements worth recognizing (as efforts worth subsidizing), but the business of handing out awards is juvenile, cheap, and aimed at our baser instincts.

50

C Trombley 09.30.15 at 5:42 am

I always have suspicions about people’s appetite for hypothetical controversy, if MacArthur Foundation really chose someone controversial many/most people would hate it (including us). I’m not saying they shouldn’t be a little more out there, but it’s worth remembering that it has a cost. But, I think one could extend the MacArthur Fellowship to new fields and achieve both reaching out and making a difference and growing the brand.

For graphic novels, comic books and their ilk, how about Gary Groth? It would really be an award for Fantagraphics, and $125,000 a year would really let them do at least one dream project.

Animation has also never won a MacArthur Award, so I can second giving one to Matt Groening (with the understanding that it is really for the apparatus of The Simpsons, Futurama and Bong Comics). But if we’re gonna pick people who could really use the award, how about Ralph Bakshi? $125,000 is nearly the budget for Last Days of Coney Island anyway…

Finally, there would be video games. I don’t know enough about indie games to make a statement about who would use the money best, but I bet people here know!

51

Gareth Wilson 09.30.15 at 6:53 am

merian @38: It’s certainly possible that only people within a certain range of political opinions and personalities can do great creative work, and I am having a hard time thinking of relevant counterexamples. Most of them have the same problem as described in the OP – not much point giving Orson Scott Card one now, for example. But that assumption does seem to be very convenient. What would you think of the creators of South Park getting the award?

52

Peter 09.30.15 at 9:34 am

Scott Sumner is an inspired choice. Steve Teles is up to interesting things. Shannon Watts would be another inspired choice.

You could also go the other direction, and give it to say a Curt Schilling or Franklin Graham-type person, or some legislator who sponsored Stand Your Ground legislation, for proving that bigotry and racism are still a live forces in American life. Would be sad to give such a person more money, but perhaps as a way of calling out the growing and ugly Islamophobia, it may be money well spent.

53

ThomasH 09.30.15 at 12:05 pm

Scott Sumner. Even thought NGDP targeting is getting close to respectable, I don’t think it’s too late.

54

Retaliated Donor 09.30.15 at 12:06 pm

John Darnielle of the rock band the Mountain Goats and author of the novel “Wolf in White Van,” which was long-listed for the National Book Award last year.

55

Chadwick Crawford 09.30.15 at 1:59 pm

If we are assembling our dream rosters here, then I must throw in my hat for musician, artist, and filmmaker Cory McAbee. His first feature, The American Astronaut, was a glorious Western Sci Fi rock musical that seemed to draw inspiration from the fever dreams of a six year-old, meticulously designed and filmed in rich black and white. And while his subsequent projects have been excellent, none have quite lived up to his promise, and it seems that funding is largely to blame. Hell, putting aside imaginary Genius Grants entirely, if you care about American film and have a moderately high weirdness threshold, you should see The American Astronaut.

56

TM 09.30.15 at 2:43 pm

The whole concept of a “genius” award is ridiculous. I have to say that Coates disappoints when he allows to be quoted in these sorry words: “When I first got the call from the MacArthur foundation I was ecstatic”. He should be embarrassed for sucking up like that.

57

In the sky 09.30.15 at 2:53 pm

Hard to think of anyone more deserving in economics than Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez, and Heidi Williams, all of whom have won. Exceptional record on that count.

Perhaps Yuriy Gorodnichenko, or Stefanie Stantcheva. Or one of Piketty’s disciples e.g. Zucman.

So mostly I say gave it to Belle.

58

In the sky 09.30.15 at 3:02 pm

Hard to think of anyone more deserving in economics than Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez, and Heidi Williams, all of whom have won. Exceptional record on that count.

Perhaps Yuriy Gorodnichenko, or Stefanie Stantcheva. Or one of Piketty’s disciples e.g. Zucman.

As an aside, look at those six names:

1. Chetty
2. Saez
3. Williams
4. Gorodnichenko
5. Stantcheva
6. Zucman

All of them work at top US universities, but only one of them was born in the United States. Useful to think about the next time you hear someone like Donald Trump talk about immigration.

59

oldster 09.30.15 at 3:13 pm

TM @56

Whuh? Coates should be embarrassed for acting like an ordinary human being, rather than one of the fake sophisticates that Kieran lampooned in that (very funny) Slate piece?

I mean, sure, KH is making fun of people’s too-cool responses to not getting it. But most of them would do double-duty as ways to be a jerk when you *do* get it. (“Yes, I suppose I received some sort of prize or award or what have you. But my *genuine* genius will only be recognized by future generations.”)

I think Coates was surprised and delighted, both for the recognition and for the money, and why the hell shouldn’t he say so?

(Maybe your 56 was an elaborate specimen of irony I’m not getting. In which case–joke’s on me.)

60

TM 09.30.15 at 3:33 pm

Just out of curiosity: do people around here really think that the “genius awards” are a genuinely meaningful recognition? I’m not talking about the money of course, that’s rock solid. But recognition, really?

61

Bill Benzon 09.30.15 at 3:46 pm

@TM, #60: What do you mean by “meaningful”? For someone like Coates, the recognition certainly feels good, but he’s already got such a high public profile that a Big Mac may not be all that meaningful there. But for those without that kind of profile, the public recognition could well mean new opportunities to get the work out.

Beyond that, is it a measure of the ‘ultimate’ value of their work? No. But then, is a Nobel a measure of the ultimate value of the work? I suspect even that’s iffy. Note further that Nobels are generally given for work that was complete two or three decades before the award. So there’s been a chance to judge the staying power of the work.

62

Barry Freed 09.30.15 at 4:49 pm

Matt Groening is worth about a half a billion dollars. Give him a presidential medal of freedom or whatever but I can imagine few others less deserving of a MacArthur grant. You might as well give one to Bill Gates too for his significant role in the PC revolution.

63

que_es 09.30.15 at 4:59 pm

Some of their choices are very good I think. The already well-known generate the most buzz (Coates) but are not necessarily representative of the group. I would nominate a couple of jazz musicians:

Robert Glasper
Ambrose Akinmusire

64

TM 09.30.15 at 5:18 pm

The awardees are a more or less arbitrary selection out of a pool of people deemed mainstream compatible. Most of them already have recognition, which beats the stated purpose but apparently they don’t know how else to choose.

65

Ronan(rf) 09.30.15 at 5:25 pm

Donald trump isn’t talking about *that sort* of immigration though.

I’m a little ashamed to say I sort of agreed with TMs initial comment. I think we’re all overdoing it with all the praise giving and “delight in being recognised by my peers” rhetoric these days. What ever happened to it just being implied that we think you’re awesome? Why the need to always express the sentiments?
I understand this probably isn’t a character trait I should nurture.

66

Rakesh 09.30.15 at 6:32 pm

@58 I would think that American economists have been drawn more than any other group to Donald Trump’s nativism. To cement his support from this group, Donald should explicitly oppose foreigners doing for cheap all kinds of statistical analysis on the barely detectable effects of marginal changes in public policies and economic variables. It would make for stirring oratory.

67

trane 09.30.15 at 7:49 pm

Interesting topic.

I am a social scientist with an interest in Southeast Asia.

It may seem like parochialism on my part, but one name came up for me in the ‘awesome’ category: Nicholas Farrelly, co-founder of the New Mandala blog, here: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/

He’s not an american, though, but deserves mention.

/trane

68

Sam Penrose 09.30.15 at 8:10 pm

Y’all are nominating a lot of folks with 1° of separation. I love Tom Slee and Cathy O’Neill and (not mentioned, but similar) Steve Waldman of Interfluidity. Not sure “most productive progressive blogger with a PhD” is a great field in which to search.

I would look at the field of transforming our energy systems away from fossil fuels: a field which will do much to determine the fate of civilization. Some like (but not one of) Vaclav Smil, Amory Lovins, Chris Nelder, Jesse Jenkins, Gregor Macdonald, the Energy-at-Haas folks. Maybe look for someone working on India, whose energy consumption ramp-up will determine much. Look for people whose output is not blogs.

Bret Victor does brilliant work focused on the next 50 years of computing: worrydream.com .

Other important fields: nuclear disarmament, asteroid strike detection.

69

Rob Chametzky 09.30.15 at 8:47 pm

Benj DeMott: has been all-but-singlehandedly putting out “First of the Month”

http://firstofthemonth.org/

since before the 21st century began. Has no institutional support (him or “First”). If you don’t know “First”, here’s a backgrounder:

https://www.insidehighered.com/views/mclemee/mclemee271

N.B.: I have contributed a few (very) small bits of writing to “First” over the years

–Rob Chametzky

70

Jerry Vinokurov 09.30.15 at 9:45 pm

I really love the idea of giving it to William Stein. Sagemath is awesome.

71

Matt 09.30.15 at 9:57 pm

And Stein/Sage is in desperate need of the money, sadly.

72

otpup 10.01.15 at 1:07 am

And NPR is getting lots of ad revenue from Mathworks.
Second on Stein and Cathy O’Neil, the latter so she
can get a Phd (a second) in the social sciences and apply
her skills therein.

73

oldster 10.01.15 at 1:51 am

“A more risky symbolic venture capital approach – say giving grants to people earlier in their career in the expectation that 80% of them will flame out, 10% will do well, and 10% will be just wonderful”

A selection process that embraces risk is very attractive in many ways (though you argue that it is not sustainable for other reasons). But one of the perverse consequences of such a track record is that people may come to fixate on the failures, and attribute them to the prize itself. “She just received a Crooked Timber Prize? Well, that’s the end of her career, then. Those things are the kiss of death! It seems like everyone who gets one goes from being a bright young thing, full of potential, to being an empty husk in a few years.”

74

burritoboy 10.01.15 at 2:01 am

This is not some unknown problem: there’s the inherent difficulty of finding the right emerging writer/artist/ etc. and then there’s the problem that truly groundbreaking work is very often annoying, weird, not necessarily intelligible and so on. Both these problems are inherent in the concept.

Anyways: Rob Nilsson.

75

Barry Freed 10.01.15 at 2:51 am

And in the spirit of this post: Luc Sante.

76

Sumana Harihareswara 10.01.15 at 11:20 am

I’ve read the whole thread and maybe I missed it, but surely I can’t be the first person here to remind and remember that MacArthur Foundation specifically does NOT call them genius awards and would rather we stopped calling them that?

“Journalists and others sometimes use ‘genius grant’ as a shorthand reference for the MacArthur Fellowship. We avoid using the term ‘genius’ to describe MacArthur Fellows because it connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess. The people we seek to support express many other important qualities: ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches.”

That FAQ is edifying regarding selection criteria, a study of the impact of the Fellowship, and so on. For instance, I had not realized that “Recipients must also be citizens or residents of the United States and must not hold elective office or advanced positions in government as defined by statute.” If I could wave a wand and make the awards more inclusive, I imagine I’d like to be able to award fellowships to city elected official Eyebrows McGee (a MetaFilter user whose writing I’ve admired) and British game-makers Meg Jayanth and Holly Gramazio.

As is: I’d love to see my pal Mel Chua, brilliant engineering education researcher and deaf activist, get more recognition and support.

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Sumana Harihareswara 10.01.15 at 11:21 am

(Holly Gramazio is resident in the UK, but may not ID as British, I should say. Possibly the same is true of Jayanth.)

78

Chris Bertram 10.01.15 at 2:07 pm

79

Bill Benzon 10.01.15 at 2:21 pm

Burritoboy’s right (#74). The problem is a difficult one, but how many people really understand the difficulty? I suspect not many, and this lack of appreciation allows the MacArthur Foundation to have its cake and eat it too, as the cliché puts it. In the general world the Foundation is giving out these “genius” awards to, well, you know, real geniuses.

It’s a more restricted circle of people who realize that most of the people being gifted are the usual suspects. Generally good a worthy people, but the source of major inoovation – who knows about tomorrow? And that’s just fine for most in these restricted circles, for the usual suspects are also their friends. Good PR all around.

@Oldster, #73: A selection process that embraces risk is very attractive in many ways (though you argue that it is not sustainable for other reasons). But one of the perverse consequences of such a track record is that people may come to fixate on the failures, and attribute them to the prize itself.

Possibly.

FWIW, I think we need to distinguish between the situation that obtained when the foundation was first formed and the Big Macs were its first program. Though it was enormously wealthy, it was also the new kid on the block, with no track record. So the foundation itself has no reputation which it would, in effect, be conferring on its fellows. Rather, as Henry indicated in the OP, it needed to build its reputation by selecting a goodly number of already prestigious people.

Have things changed now that its been doing this for over 30 years (since 1981)? Does the MacArthur Foundation now have a reputation of its own, not only for the Big Mac program, which is a rather small part of their annual payout, but for all the other work it’s done? Could it now afford the strategy Henry suggested? I don’t know.

Given all the publicity the Fellows program generates, if it wanted to change direction in favor of genuine risk, it would have to undertake a public education project. That in itself might be a very good thing, given that we’re in a world that’s rapidly changing and where genuinely new ideas are needed.

@Sumana Harihareswara, #76: I for one am quite aware of the fact the Foundation frowns on the term “genius grant”, or at least seems to. However, as long as other people keep using the term, which started in the first year of the program’s existence, the Foundation doesn’t have to. A I explain in my working paper on the program (now updated to include the class of 2015, and this discussion), I doubt that the program would have captured the public imagination without the term “genius” attached to it.

The “genius” term has immediate meaning, and if the connotations are a bit geeky, well, geeky has been on the rise in the last three decades. But a more accurate phrase, such as “individuals of exceptional capacity along any of a number of dimensions” is all but meaningless and is a useless mouthful. The Foundation can protest the term, but they’re stuck with it and they benefit from it. Without it there’d be less publicity, and publicity, I’m afraid, is what it’s about for the Foundation. The PR also helps the recipients, of course, but the money is a different kind of help.

80

Bill Benzon 10.01.15 at 3:12 pm

And surely there’s a “costly signally” aspect to the awards. If the foundation just gave out a bunch of awards but with little or no money attached, who’d care? But there’s real money involved. Not much, to be sure, by the standards of large segments of the scientific research world, but still, money. And it’s given without strings. That’s the innovation that gives these awards some pizzazz. That’s the special sauce in the Big Mac.

Compare this with the Kennedy Center Honors. The recipients don’t get anything except a fancy medal and a big ceremony that’s televised. They also get to sit with the President of the US at that ceremony. That, of course, is a Big Deal. And it costs money to throw the ceremony and televise it.

And of course, the recipients all have illustrious careers, some more visible than others, of course, but these awards are for achievement, not for potential (which is the pretense of the Big Macs). There is a cost to these awards, but it’s not paid to the awardees, and, on the whole, it’s not the cost that gives the Kennedy Center honors their zip. It’s the presence of the President on TV before the nation.

81

LFC 10.01.15 at 6:50 pm

Rob Chametzky @69
First of the Month looks interesting. Not sure I’d been there before.

82

Larry Siegel 10.02.15 at 2:41 am

Michael Peter Smith, the poet-folksinger, while he is still alive and able to write yet more poetry and music. There are other great musicians, like Bob Dylan, but Dylan needs the money and recognition like a hole in the head.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is full of hate and resentment. He is good with words, but he is not the first black man to impress white liberals with how “eloquent” and “articulate” he is.

83

Paul Crowley 10.02.15 at 2:41 pm

Scott Alexander was my first thought and I can see Scott Sumner, but no-one’s mentioned Scott Aaronson.

84

Bloix 10.02.15 at 4:05 pm

#78 – I’m seeing a lot of Walker Evans and just a smidge of Diane Arbus. It’s an uneasy combination. They are not innovative or immediately compelling but they have interest as documentary and maybe on further viewing they will have power as art.

85

Josh Lukin 10.03.15 at 2:43 am

A great writer who would benefit from having more time to write is Ray Davis.

86

Sam Penrose 10.03.15 at 5:57 pm

Alan Kay on where Bret Victor currently works:

“One of the keys to this kind of thing working is having a community. Xerox PARC and CDG are like collective MacArthur grants. You’re not funding individuals, you’re putting together a community. You’re trying to create an environment, a world. Not a thing. We never discussed what our ultimate goal was at PARC. It didn’t look like we were doing anything for the first couple years, and Xerox was upset. But the process was surprisingly efficient, because most of that trillion-dollar return was invented in the first five years.”

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3046437/5-steps-to-recreate-xerox-parcs-design-magic-from-the-guy-who-helped-make-it

87

LFC 10.04.15 at 3:47 am

Scott Alexander was my first thought

Had never heard of him or Slate Star Codex, but just spent a little time looking at it, and I hope not typical is the linkage post where he links to the Wikipedia entry on the Hundred
Flowers Campaign and proceeds to misdescribe it. But perhaps I am missing the point. Hard to judge a blog or site on a quick look.

88

Bloix 10.04.15 at 12:58 pm

#82 – “Ta-Nehisi Coates is full of hate and resentment.”

As a white man who reads Coates with interest, this seems to me to be utterly wrong. Coates’ chosen career is explaining the African-American experience to white people, and it seems to me that he’s quite good at it. He is often exasperated and sometimes angry, but if you find Coates full of hate and resentment then the only African-American who wouldn’t make you uncomfortable would be Stepin Fetchit.

89

Fredrik deBoer 10.04.15 at 4:19 pm

I’d settle for them selecting anyone who would piss off most people, including the people who read and write this blog. If people aren’t genuinely outraged by your fantasy selection, then what the hell is the point?

90

Doug 10.04.15 at 7:12 pm

I went back and looked at a bit of TNC’s blog from five years ago. I was reading (and commenting, as time zones allowed) at the time, and it was very good then. But it got significantly better as time went on, and he grew and learned. He made a leap from Very Good Blogger to something more.

Two more thoughts: On the charming side, Bellwether by Connie Willis is about someone who looks for potential winners for a fictional award not unlike the MacArthur.

On the economic side, $125,000 a year for five years is good money, but not, as noted above, no longer transformative. Kicking it up by an order of magnitude might do the trick.

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