Prof. Emmanuel Farhi was too young to die.
Moving tributes poured in from people who knew Dr Farhi when he passed away on July 23rd, 2020. Just 41, Dr Farhi was a brilliant economist and as some of his colleagues described him, a future “Nobel winner”. Robert C. Waggoner Professor of Economics in the Economics Department at Harvard University, Farhi was a member of the Commission Economique de la Nation, the National Bureau for Economic Research, and the Center for Economic Policy Research.
The Econ Focus once profiled him thus:
A young Emmanuel Farhi knew that his father, who passed away when Emmanuel was 10 years old, was an economist. But the boy never fully knew during his father’s lifetime just what an economist was.
Three decades later, Farhi is one of the pre-eminent macroeconomists of his generation in both the United States and his native France. It was a roundabout journey: At age 16, he won first prize in the French national physics competition. Two years afterward, on the threshold of entering university, he attained the highest score in the nation on the entry exam for France’s elite engineering school, the École Polytechnique. But he turned it down for another coveted institution, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, often called ENS. (Today, ENS is also the alma mater of numerous other notable French economists, including the University of California, Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez, MIT’s Esther Duflo, Farhi’s Harvard colleague and frequent co-author Xavier Gabaix, and Thomas Piketty, author of the 2014 bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century.)
At ENS, he planned at first to be a mathematician, but became drawn to economics instead. In his spare time, he read MIT professor Paul Samuelson’s classic economics text.
“I think what drew me in particular was the ability to model economic phenomena,” he says. “And I thought that was a powerful way of deeply understanding these forces and how they were shaping the world.”
Here is the best piece I read on him – I downloaded the English translation and there was no way to link to the translated version so please download to read:
Another excellent piece on French economists and their phenomenal success in the US – again, download English translation below:
There was an eerie silence around the cause of his death until this professor at INSEAD tweeted, hinting at mental illness in academia:
While none of the op-eds on his brilliant career as an economist mentioned “suicide” as the cause of death, a debate on Twitter erupted urging the need for openness and compassionate discussion on the subject. Another blog said he “died by his own hand” adding it to the list of four academics in the US who committed suicide over the past year.
The Future of Capitalism blog stated and I quote:
David Warsh reports: “Emmanuel Farhi, 41, of Harvard University, died last week, apparently by his own hand. It was the fourth such death of a prominent economist in a year, following those of Martin Weitzman, also of Harvard; Alan Krueger, of Princeton University; and William Sandholm, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.”
Suicide is always, or at least often, something of a mystery, but if I had some reporters to assign, I’d send one to go investigate these four deaths and come back with a story about something—academic economics, mental health, something. It is of interest beyond academia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in April 2020 that in the U.S., “From 1999 through 2018, the suicide rate increased 35%, from 10.5 per 100,000 to 14.2. The rate increased on average approximately 1% per year from 1999 to 2006 and by 2% per year from 2006 through 2018.” Also, that “Suicide is a major contributor to premature mortality as it ranks as the second leading cause of death for ages 10–34 and the fourth leading cause for ages 35–54.”
Here is a range of theories around his death. Whatever that it was that led to his death, the speculation must stop. What needs to be grieved is the definitive loss that his going away brings to the field of Economics. May he rest in peace.
I leave you with this video of him speaking on The Microeconomic Foundations of Aggregate Production Functions (and my heart just breaks watching this: