Murphy's Law_UofChicago Magazine_12-2006

Murphy's Law_UofChicago Magazine_12-2006 - The University...

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The University of Chicago Magazine:: By John Easton, AM'77 :: Photography by Dan Dry Murphy’s law Who you gonna call? When solving thorny problems that combine theory and empirical analysis, Chicago economists rely on colleague Kevin Murphy as their go-to guy. It’s kind of an unwritten rule among Chicago economists. If you have a difficult problem, a really hard problem, you have to try to solve it for at least three days—three concentrated, focused, uninterrupted days—before you call Kevin Murphy. Robert Topel, the Isidore Brown and Gladys J. Brown professor in urban and labor economics, had such a problem, a programming issue involving job search and human capital. “Very complex,” he says, “with lots of conditions.” He had struggled with it for substantially more than three days, thought he had it licked, or at least come close, and he was proud of how he had gotten there. So, just to be sure, he called Murphy. “Kevin answers, I explain, he starts talking me through it,” says Topel. “On the whole, I had done quite well. But before long Kevin mentions a few subtle aspects of the problem that I hadn’t seen. As we talk, I’m thinking, ‘Good old Kevin.’ I imagine him sitting at his kitchen table, pencil in hand, scribbling equations on a napkin. He’s dropped everything to help me with my problem, and in ten minutes he’s explaining aspects of it to me that I would never have seen. Then I hear a splash, and a squeal, then another splash, and it dawns on me: There’s no pencil, no paper. Kevin’s holding the phone to his left ear with his shoulder while he’s giving his kid a bath.” That kid is now 21, a junior at the University of Wisconsin, but one thing that has matured along with him is his father’s reputation for instant and boundless insights, an uncanny ability to see any economic problem from a new, clarity-providing angle. As a consequence, if you ask anyone who knows him about Kevin Murphy, PhD’86, the George J. Stigler distinguished service professor in economics and the Graduate School of Business, they all respond the same way. “He’s brilliant, very brilliant, and I don’t use that term often,” says colleague Gary Becker, AM’53, PhD’55, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in economics. “Kevin is unusually brilliant. He’s technically very good, catches on quickly, has a good imagination. He’s innovative and he
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2 has a good nose for ideas. He is at the top ranks in economics. Among those his age, nobody is better.” “Kevin is far and away the smartest guy in the field,” says Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, the Alvin Baum professor in economics and the College. “Often, the better you get to know these guys, the less ingenious they seem. It’s just the opposite with Kevin. Not only is he widely regarded as the smartest economist on earth, but he can also fix your refrigerator.” “He’s the world’s biggest bundle of human capital,” says Topel. “He’s the smartest guy, the
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This note was uploaded on 03/02/2010 for the course BUAD 350 taught by Professor Safarzadeh during the Spring '07 term at USC.

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Murphy's Law_UofChicago Magazine_12-2006 - The University...

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