Do MacArthur Awards stimulate genius?

As part of a program widely known as genius grants, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation most years gives one or more authors $500,000, hoping financial freedom will help the writers produce their best work.

An examination of the program, however, reveals that most of the 31 writers chosen since 1981 as MacArthur Fellows had already hit their artistic peak. That conclusion is supported by the 14 major awards – either a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award or PEN/Faulkner prize – and 37 minor awards the authors received before getting their MacArthur money.

Surveying book reviews, author profiles and the opinions of literary scholars, Crain’s determined that 88% of the MacArthur recipients wrote their greatest works before being recognized by the Chicago-based foundation. The sheer number of books produced by the writers declined, too, after their MacArthur awards.

It would reinforce romantic notions that great art requires personal sacrifice to suggest that, half-a-million dollars in hand, writers get lazy. But something else appears to account for the failure of the MacArthur program to fulfill its promise: Writers are mostly chosen too late in their careers, average age 48, and well after the literary establishment has recognized them for excellence.

Daniel Drezner offers further commentary.  I see two options.  Either the prizes stimulate genius by paying rewards ex post, or we would be better served by scattering smaller grants to a greater number of unknown writers.  Ex ante subsidies do better than ex post prizes when the relevant creators are liquidity constrained.  That is, without the upfront grant, a great but still obscure writer might have to drop out of the game for lack of money.  Since that is a plausible description of the market for fiction, most prizes and grants in this area should take more chances.  Tenured academics, in contrast, are not usually liquidity constrained (unless they have expensive lab bills); ex post prizes will work better for them.

That being said, it is easy to see why foundations — which involve accountability to a board of trustees — might prefer a more conservative approach.  Yes a foundation may care about the world, but it must also support its own reputation, generate favorable publicity, and build a "ruling coalition" which reaps reputational awards from making quality grants.  All of these factors will militate in favor of awards to established producers.  When accountability is in place, who will opt for a very risky investment which fails in at least ninety percent of all cases?