The University of Chicago Magazine:: By John Easton, AM'77
:: Photography by Dan Dry
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