Economics alum addresses income inequality at Nobel Prize Summit

When the Nobel Prize committee wrote to ask economist Dr. Gary Hoover to speak at its first-ever summit in April, he deleted the email.

“I thought it was a joke. I thought, no Nobel Prize people are going to be contacting me,” he laughed. “I’m just waiting for them to ask me for my credit card because I’m convinced this is a scam.”

But his colleagues thought it might be real. They urged Hoover to follow up. So, he sent a message back, requesting proof. If this was really the Nobel Prize committee, he said, surely the members could get a former winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics to confirm it, since there was one listed on the preliminary program.

“A couple of days later, the laureate sends me an email and says, ‘This is real,’” Hoover said.

Even so, he was still skeptical – “Email addresses can be faked,” he defended – until a colleague who actually sat on the Nobel Prize committee reassured him. “‘The Nobel Prize doesn’t make mistakes. If they contacted you, that means they want you,’” Hoover recalled.

And so, UWM alum Gary Hoover was added to the Nobel Prize summit speaker lineup, joining a list of distinguished individuals from around the globe – names like former Vice President Al Gore, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Nobel Prize winner the Dalai Lama.

The Nobel Prize Summit

The Nobel Prize committee, famously known for selecting Nobel laureates to recognize outstanding achievements in science, literature and other fields, hosted its firstever summit in April in partnership with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Titled, “Our Planet, Our Future,” the virtual event brought together Nobel laureates, leading scientists and researchers, policymakers, business leaders, and others to answer the question, “What can be achieved in this decade to put the world on a path to a more sustainable, more prosperous future for all of humanity?”

While the summit placed a heavy emphasis on climate change, Hoover was there to address another avenue of sustainability: Income inequality.

Hoover is a leading expert on that particular subject. He is a professor of economics at Tulane University and the executive director of the university’s Murphy Institute. His work focuses on how economic policy affects income distribution, both vertically, between different socioeconomic classes, and horizontally, across different demographics within the same socioeconomic class.

His talk for the Nobel Prize summit focused on the gap between rich and poor. In a healthy economy, education is usually a means for increasing income and moving up in socioeconomic class. However, when that promise of economic mobility is violated – Hoover pointed to 2011 Egypt when people with Master’s degrees could find no jobs beyond driving taxis as an example – then the economy suffers and unrest begins to build.

“Having (an income) gap isn’t a bad thing, but having no bridge is bad. You have to have a bridge,” Hoover added in an interview after the summit. “If people can’t (move up), you’re going to have problems. You’re going to have more Occupy Wall Streets. You’re going to have more Arab Springs. … Income inequality never works anywhere on the globe in any time period in history.”

Hoover delivered his talk in a virtual chat room hosted by Ahmed Best, known for playing Jar Jar Binks in the “Star Wars” franchise, and attended by several guests, including Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote Marvel’s “Black Panther.”

“I didn’t know who either one of these two guys are,” Hoover admitted, “which is probably better. I think I would have been a lot more nervous had I known who I was going to be on the panel with. It was nuts.”

The Nobel Prize Summit was broadcast around the world. In the days that followed, Hoover received multiple emails in different languages, asking follow-up questions about his work.

Even months after the event, he’s a bit incredulous that he was asked to be a speaker and rubbed virtual elbows with so many of the world’s top leaders and thinkers. He’s been asked to present at panels and conferences before, but nothing like this.

“An undergraduate from UWM is giving all of these national and international talks. That doesn’t happen every day,” he said.

The value of UWM

Economics is a personal field for Hoover; growing up, his mother was the hardest-working person he knew, but the family never seemed to have much money. A high school teacher directed him towards an economics class so he could understand how labor and the economy worked. After high school, he did a stint in the Army to pay for college at UWM, where he majored in economics. Economics professor James Peoples was his advisor and the two still collaborate on research today.

After graduating, Hoover traveled to St. Louis to earn his PhD, and then worked at the University of Alabama and at the University of Oklahoma. At each place, he both taught economics and helped departments learn to recruit and retain Black faculty members. He began working at Tulane in January and presented at the Nobel Prize Summit in April.

“I’m here now, at the Nobel Prize summit, because of my training at UWM,” Hoover said. “The training I received there was good enough to get me here.”

And next time, he probably won’t delete an email from the Nobel Prize committee so quickly.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science