Yesterday Barack Obama was given a little more than six ounces of gold, in the form of a medal, measuring about two and a half inches across. Since the announcement of this gift in October, many have wondered aloud (including Obama himself) whether he is worthy of it. Or worthy of it yet.
He is, and he will be. Swedish chemist, engineer, and inventor Alfred Nobel understood better than most that the present and the future can be tied together in unusual ways.
Obama has a proven ability to do all things quickly. He joked last spring that he was on track to complete his first 100 days in office several days early. National Review online editor Jonah Goldberg has speculated that here is a man who can make 12-minute brownies in seven minutes. If only world peace could be cooked up as easily as a batch of brownies.
No American president has ever received a Nobel Peace Prize this quickly. Teddy Roosevelt had been in office five years; Woodrow Wilson, six. Jimmy Carter globe-trotted for decades after leaving the presidency before he got his. Obama has won the prize before his Air Force One lost its new car smell.
Alfred Nobel, the prize’s founder, had a keen interest in how the present can affect the future and vice versa. He reshaped his own legacy after a French newspaper in 1888 inadvertently published his obituary, stating that “the merchant of death is dead.” As the inventor of dynamite, the description of the man was not incorrect, but they got the date of his death wrong. He went on to live another eight years — enough time for Nobel to make his earlier obituary incomplete.
When Nobel died in 1896, he left the bulk of his estate — about $250 million in today’s dollars — to fund Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for peace. They are given on each anniversary of his death.
The Nobel committee has followed its founder’s fascination with how the present and the future shape each other. The consequential is not always sequential.
For example, two Nobel prizes in 2006 were awarded for applications of what economists call the “shadow of the future.” Microcredit in particular and game theory in general posit that expectations of the future can shape present behavior in powerful and measurable ways. A specific future can be leveraged backwards into the present.
Microcredit demonstrated that lenders can better serve their clients and their investors if they consider the client’s future asset when they consider extending credit. A woman with a cow or a bicycle or a cell phone will repay the loan with the extra capabilities that the purchased asset provides. If the lender deals with her from the start as if she already has that asset, repayment success rates soar.
Obama is fond of the phrase “bending the curve” of destiny. He relates it broadly to the spread of freedom across the globe and specifically to containing the escalating cost of health care. He understands that the future is malleable.
Choices we make today affect choices we’ll have tomorrow. But it’s no less true that expectations we have for tomorrow affect choices we make today.
Yesterday’s award to Obama practiced that profundity. The committee leveraged their vision of a more peaceful world tomorrow with a prize today.
Giving the Nobel Peace Prize to this young American at the beginning of his presidency attempts to connect a present hope with a future peace.
Alfred Nobel read his premature obituary and then resolved to live down his reputation as a “merchant of death.” In the same way, giving the Nobel Peace Prize to a young American president gives him — again, prematurely — a reputation he’ll be resolved to live up to.
Obama campaigned for hope and change. He convinced a majority of voting Americans to support him. In a world that was portrayed as frightening by his predecessor, his opponent, the media, and even the conventional wisdom, that was no small accomplishment.
Obama had been president for only 12 days before the Nobel committee closed its nominations for 2009. So it’s safe to say he wasn’t nominated for his presidential accomplishments. Unless he was.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes each Friday for The Register-Guard. He blogs right here, where all his published columns are archived.