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Stephen Nickell

The University of Warwick gave Stephen Nickell an honorary degree at the graduation ceremony held on July 17, 2008. This was his citation, written by Mark Harrison with the help of Nick Crafts, Marcus Miller, and Mark Stewart.

Stephen Nickell is presently Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford. Before that, he was a professor at the London School of Economics. In addition he is or has been an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee Bank of England, a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Economic Association, a Fellow of the British Academy, a Fellow of the Econometric Society, President of the Royal Economic Society, President of the Economics Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Chairman of the ESRC Research Grants Board and a Member of the ESRC Council, a Governor of the National Institute of Social and Economic Research, a Founding Member of the Council of the European Economic Association, Editor of the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, and a Member of the Treasury Academic Panel.

Nickell is an outstanding empirical economist. His single most cited work, in the Journal of Political Economy (1996), demonstrated clearly for the first time from empirical evidence that more competition among firms really does raise the rate of growth of productivity. This work had a major impact in raising the priority that British governments have placed since then on competition policy.

But Nickell is best known as a specialist in the causes of unemployment, and particularly for pioneering work on the causes of mass unemployment in the U.K. in the 1980s. This work transformed economists' understanding of the relationship between the supply and demand sides in an imperfectly competitive economy; it also changed the way that undergraduates throughout the world now study the labour market in modern macroeconomics. Those familiar with the famous diagram that plots the feasible wage and target wage against unemployment, now the textbook standard, will know the reference to Richard Layard and Nickell. It was Nickell and his colleagues that developed the notion of the NAIRU – not a long-defunct prime minister of India, but an acronym standing for the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment. They rejected the idea of a given “natural” rate of unemployment and argued for supply side measures to reduce unemployment in a sustainable way.

Since the task of the Bank of England is to target sustainable full employment by maintaining low and stable inflation, it is not surprising that Nickell became an early and long serving member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

A contemporary, and himself a distinguished economist, Bob Nobay describes the young Steve of the swinging 1960s as “a smart and laid back individual who hardly ever had a snide or harsh word to say of lesser mortals, unlike one or two of his peer group … He was so laid back that one always wondered if he would tip over on his seat. Truly capable, generous, and hardly ever broke sweat.” But it would be wrong to think of Nickell as disengaged or passionless. If you enter “L’absinthe” and “unemployment” in Google, the first hit will be his book on Unemployment, Macroeconomic Performance, and the Labour Market (2005). The reason is that the book’s cover features the painting “L'absinthe” by Degas, with its sad drinkers at the bar – a striking illustration for a book about academic economics and one that the authors had to battle for against a reluctant publisher. The reason for the picture is found in the book’s dedication to "the millions who suffer through want of work."

Nickell has a close and supportive connection with Warwick and the Department of Economics. He has repeatedly reviewed, recommended, and advised. There is no glory in these thankless tasks, just the good will and uncomplaining service of a tremendous colleague. I have never known him decline to act or plead other pressures. In hidden ways Nickell has made a major contribution to the success of Warwick; no doubt he will continue to do so. It is hard to put a price on such selfless collegiality. We are delighted to take this opportunity to say thank you.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, in the name of the Council, I present to you for admission to the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, Stephen Nickell.

Mark Harrison

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