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True Genius: Kevin Murphy wins MacArthur “Genius” Award

I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of smart people in my life. Without question, Kevin Murphy is the smartest of them all. Not only is he smart, but he is also one of the kindest, most loyal, and most generous people I’ve known.

So I could not be happier that the MacArthur Foundation today named him as one of the winners of their prestigious “Genius” Fellowships which provides $500,000 with essentially no strings attached.

Kevin Murphy is one of the main reasons I am at Chicago. When deciding whether to leave to go to another University, my thought process went like this: faced with a choice of being able to talk to all the other economists in the world, or to just Kevin, I’d choose “just Kevin.” Given that, how could I leave Chicago?

Kevin and Nobel Laureate Gary Becker are founding members of the Center I direct at the University of Chicago. Even though running the Center is a lot of work, if those two guys ask you to be on their team, who is going to say no?

It is hard to know where to start when describing Kevin. His early mentor Finis Welch describes how one day, when Kevin was an undergraduate, he introduced himself to Welch and asked Welch what he was working on. When Professor Welch described it, Kevin pointed out a fundamental flaw in the argument. Welch recalls that he scribbled down what Kevin was saying, only half understanding it, and it took him a few days to work out that Kevin was completely right. That wasn’t an isolated incident. Rarely do I leave Kevin’s office without myself having accumulated a set of scribbles that take days for me to sort out. And I have been asked for a sheet of paper by a Nobel Laureate trying to capture Kevin’s thoughts during a hallway conversation.

One time I was in Kevin’s office and asked him a question. He took off his baseball cap and scratched his head and said, “I don’t know the answer to that.” My world was shaken. I had come to believe that if a question was answerable, Kevin could answer it. So I pressed him. “Kevin, you must know the answer,” I pleaded. So he went to the board and within five minutes he had solved the problem. All was back to normal.

Gary Becker told me that faced with any question in economics, regardless of the field or subject matter, he would bet on Kevin over any other economist, even one who specialized in that narrow area, to figure out the problem. I would too.

A few summers back, Kevin agreed to teach a series of lectures to any interested faculty. This, in and of itself, is remarkable. He was not being compensated, he is just incredibly generous with his time. But the truly amazing thing is that the lectures drew just about every economist under the age of 40 on the University of Chicago campus. Attendance was as high the last day as the first day. And we were not going out of obligation, we were begging for more at the end. There is no one else in the world of economics who could attract an audience like that.

So, hats off to the MacArthur Foundation for recognizing one of greatest people I have ever known.