A letter on Emmanuel Farhi’s death

This was written by a childhood friend of Emmanuel Farhi. As Twitter user @BiasedStats notes, the third paragraph makes it worth sharing.

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As most of you may have now heard, Emmanuel Farhi died by his own hand last week. He was a childhood friend of mine and even if we had been estranged for a long time, I feel this sad news compels or at least allows me to write this message. By all possible measures, Emmanuel was the gold standard of the profession: full professor at Harvard Economics Department, recipient of countless awards, esteemed colleague, coauthor and advisor.

I am not aware of the specifics of his personal situation. Of course, life can be difficult on many aspects other than work. However, in our profession arguably more than in others, professional and personal levels are quite often intertwined. According to the numerous reactions to his passing, Emmanuel counted many friends in the profession, who now refer to his brilliance (“true scholar”, “shooting star”, “super-human”, “best economist of his generation”, etc.). I believe this kind of tributes, however well intentioned, may also be problematic.

In Emmanuel’s case, such awe might have isolated him. In my case, I know that I forbade myself to get in touch with him as much as I could/should have because I did not feel entitled to do so. This kind of feeling is nurtured by the very hierarchical aspect of economic research, which, true enough, is not specific to economics, but is compounded by the reflective nature of our field, where we have a tendency to analyze our daily actions with economic metaphors and, among other examples, take a special interest in the determinants and the measure of individual and group productivity, as well as the structure of careers, using the example of academics.

The challenge we face is to create and maintain an ambitious and stimulating environment without losing sight of what makes academic life so great: collaborative work and a sense of collective, inclusive endeavor. This is all the more important for the newcomers, especially PhD students, who may struggle to adjust to new – and questionable – professional norms and are quite susceptible to mental distress, as discussed in this recent paper. This is also a crucial issue for the months (hopefully, not years) to come, when sanitary restrictions will limit actual human interactions and the generalization of online operations may increase exposure to global competition in possibly detrimental ways. Let us discuss about all this.