Remembering Emmanuel Farhi

This month, thousands of readers have read my posts on Emamnuel Farhi, which is why I think, along with me, they would also like to join this online memorial service for the economist who would have turned 42 on September 8th. For those who missed my posts, you could read them below:

Emmanuel Farhi

Emmanuel Farhi, too young to say goodbye

Dear beautiful minds, don’t be perfect

Do sign up for this event being organised by Harvard University, Department of Economics.

dear beautiful minds, don’t be perfect

If life doesn’t give you what you truly deserve, what must you do? When you can not be perfect, but you won’t settle for any less, what do you do?

I won’t answer because these questions have no answers. Different people have answered it differently over the years. It’s the difference in their responses that have attracted labels – brave, resilient, weak, gritty – but I abhor labels. I abhor patronizing labels that often put human beings on a pedestal and confine them to their own perceived greatness. The labels leave them alone in the midst of a crowd. I just translated a famous couplet to say how acutely we can be alone even in the midst of people. These are matters that break out hearts, trouble us, leave us shaken.

But when Emmanuel Farhi and earlier, Will opines died, the conversation comes around to issues that have been in the open but we find little openness around it. I am not getting there – read here, here, here, here, here and here to get a picture. In India, it’s reached worrying levels.

So, why must you aspire to be perfect? Since when has perfectionism become desirable? Perfectionism is a disease, and I discovered it after experiencing severe writer’s block. It just is an ideal that doesn’t exist, slows you down and makes you overly critical of yourself. You develop low self esteem when you clearly could be miles ahead of your peers.

You have a gift of trying, of being yourself, of being alive. Perfectionism blinds you to these. In academia, it takes on a whole new level. A brilliant space with sky high ambition, one may forget that life is more than achievements, medals or degrees or the depression you may feel in spite of the glories.

Life is in living – sometimes accepting, sometimes fighting whatever it brings. Neither of these require perfection, just the will to try.

Emmanuel Farhi: Too young to say goodbye

I didn’t know Emmanuel Farhi except as someone invested in economics and the scholarship of economists. But his death has left me with several pressing thoughts. In an earlier post on this blog written immediately after his death, I had laid out the condolences and conspiracy theories around his death. Today, I am writing more to reflect on his death and why it’s sparked such sorrow and curiosity.

Emmanuel Farhi was just too young to die. To make it harder on people who were familiar with his work, he was brilliant. It is the coming together of both that makes his death so tragic.When you are barely 40 something, you are at once old enough to be respected for your ideas and young enough for the world to expect more from you. You are somewhere between accomplishment and greatness, shining bright enough for the world to almost picture you with your pioneering contributions in the future. At such a young age, his contributions carried a unique diversity of thought and depth of scholarship – from fiscal policy, public finance, exchange rates, to international macro and monetary systems, productivity and international trade. He transformed the theory of taxation, macroeconomics, and international finance.

In a column in Mint, economist Ajit Ranade wrote:

He challenged the notion of the “liquidity trap”, made famous by Keynes during the Great Depression. Keynes had said monetary policy would be ineffective in spurring investment during deep recessions. Farhi said that in the modern context, especially after the crisis of 2008-09, we have a “safety trap”. The world is facing a shortage of safe assets such as US Treasury bonds. And yields cannot go any lower, since zero is an effective lower bound. How do you deal with this? With the unorthodox monetary policy of creating new “safe assets”; i.e. central banks buying AAA-rated corporate bonds. The European Central Bank is already doing so. The second example is of the impossible trinity in macroeconomics, which says you cannot simultaneously control interest and exchange rates if your capital account is open. Farhi’s insight was that partial capital controls are a solution for open economies fighting an onslaught of inflows and battling volatility in exchange rates—a practical guide to countries like India. A third example is Farhi’s boldness in taking on an old debate called the “Cambridge capital controversy”. This was a critique by Joan Robinson of Robert Solow, Paul Samuelson (both Nobel winners) and others that you can’t describe an entire economy’s aggregate production function in terms of “capital stock”; buildings and machinery cannot be aggregated into one number. This debate fizzled out in the 1960s, but Farhi’s work has reopened it, examining it rigorously from the very foundations.

In the bright world of academia where brilliance is never in short supply, Farhi also symbolized the pinnacle of attainments one could achieve in his field – he was tenured at Harvard within five years of defending his PhD at MIT and his admirers called him a future Nobel winner. Being young and bright is a promise to not just people who want you to succeed, but to the field you contribute to. Bring all these together and you have the picture of a success story. Yet, Farhi was humble and generous and open to collaborations more than anyone of his intellectual stature would admit to. He published a significant number of his papers as a co-author.

Success, recognition and superlative achievement may not always translate into joy or happiness or attainment of whatever it is that holds one together, though. With strictly limited coverage of Farhi’s death, we don’t know what it is that he wanted or what it was that he could no longer bear. Perhaps, at such a young age, we are still figuring out life stuff, even though academically or professionally, it may be possible to excel and lead.

Here is a detailed interview with Emmanuel Farhi and another obit that I strongly recommend to understand his work.

Emmanuel Farhi

Prof. Emmanuel Farhi was too young to die. Just as SSR was too young to die too. Farhi was 41; SSR was 34. In both events, we lost bright stars. This post is on Farhi’s passing away which has shocked people who knew, loved and admired him.

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: