In Memoriam: Emmanuel Farhi 1978-2020

July 24, 2020
Emmanuel Farhi

The Economics Department has lost a young and brilliant economist in Emmanuel Farhi, Robert C. Waggoner Professor of Economics, who passed away on July 23rd, 2020.  He was a member of the Commission Economique de la Nation, the National Bureau for Economic Research, and the Center for Economic Policy Research. He was also a former member of the Conseil d'Analyse Economique to the french prime minister.

Statements of remembrance from friends, colleagues, and students:

Emmanuel was the greatest active macroeconomist and the most beautiful mind I have ever encountered.  More than once since I arrived at Harvard, I have thought that I would remember these years in part for the privilege of cohabiting with Emmanuel Farhi at the peak of his intellectual powers.  I have thought this after watching Emmanuel present a new paper, which I described to my wife as akin to being at the debut of a new Beethoven symphony.  I have thought this after student lunches in which he arrived at the solution to a problem faster and cleaner than anyone else.  And I have thought this especially after the many lunches and dinners we shared where we discussed my ongoing work, his ongoing work, someone else’s work, the latest book he had read on genetic archaeology, or anything else, always featuring his genuine curiosity, breadth, and generosity of mind.  One of the things I have missed most the past few months is the stretch of summer when Emmanuel and I would be the only inhabitants of the macro wing of Littauer and would go to lunch each day together.  He was a mentor in whom I trusted completely his honesty and judgment.  He was the yardstick against which I measured my own intellectual development, knowing it would be impossible to match him but always striving to make progress.  He is irreplaceable and the manner of his loss unfathomable.  I will miss my friend Emmanuel dearly. - Gabriel Chodorow-Reich

Emmanuel and I shared an office wall since his arrival at Harvard in 2006. I thus had the privilege to have a courtside seat in his transformation from “boy genius” to a towering figure in the much too competitive world of academic Macroeconomics. He would often be the first person I would see in the morning when I arrived to Littauer, and the last one I would see when I left in the afternoon. I had lunch with him on innumerable occasions, often with Gita Gopinath and with other inhabitants of the top floor of Littauer’s West Wing (for the first few years), and the second floor of the East Wing (more recently). These lunches were never fully relaxing, as Emmanuel was an intense person, who often insisted on discussing research or recent economic or political events. We all learned enormously from him – this is such a tragic loss for the Department. Yet, this not just an intellectual loss for me. I lost a friend with whom I often confided and with whom I shared many ups and downs in both our professional and personal lives. I wish I had been more proactive in continuing to be his confidant when the current health crisis kept us away from Littauer.

Emmanuel was not a perfect man, but he sought perfection in everything he did. In recent years, he had noticeably increased his efforts to improve the quality of his teaching and his mentoring of students. This is manifestly clear from the several remembrances of his current students; he was on a path to achieve perfection there as well. He leaves us an amazing body of work, which I am sure will endure the test of time, but we will never get to see him shape the next generation of macroeconomists, and this also an unfathomable loss. - Pol Antras

Emmanuel was a brilliant economist with broad interests in economics, politics, literature and art. He was one of a kind, who cared deeply about the roots of economic ideas. We had many conversations about arcane topics such as the theory of aggregation, the Cambridge-Cambridge controversy, and the meaning of factoral terms of trade. In every case Emmanuel read the literature and  hungered for more. One day we discussed Vasily Grossman’s books about the Soviet gulag, the following day Piero Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities. One day we discussed the new Keynesian economics, the following day new Israeli movies. We were blessed with his presence in the department and in our corner of Littauer. He was very dear to me and I will miss him terribly. - Elhanan Helpman

Emmanuel was always very kind to me, both when I was a graduate student and when I came back to the department years later. He saw further, faster than anyone else I know. He was an inspiring figure in the department and the profession, for whom everything seemed effortless, and I will miss his piercing insights in seminars and his ferocious shots on the squash court, and fascinating conversations afterwards. I was always panting to catch up, and am very sad that now I never will.  - Thomas Baranga

As my advisor, Emmanuel taught me to distill complex ideas into fundamental principles, to appreciate the elegance that comes from simplicity, and to approach creative endeavors with an open mind. Emmanuel was always there for me. And literally so—his Littauer office door was always open. In the early days, I was too shy to stroll by unannounced, afraid that I might disturb a great mind at work. It wasn’t until the end of my PhD that I realized how invested he was in my personal and academic growth. By doing away with regimented meeting times, he was perhaps encouraging us—his students—to drop by more often. And when I needed him the most, on the job market, he was always only a phone call away. Over the years, I bumped into Emmanuel outside of the office more often than I expected, whether it’s at a Cape-Cod lobster shack, a crowded wine bar, or the weight machines at Hemenway. While I will cherish his intellectual gifts for the rest of my life, I will dearly miss the chance to have gotten to know him better as a mentor and friend. - Xiang Ding

Emmanuel was one of the brightest minds I’ve ever met. His ability to uncover the most general mechanisms of economic theories and explain them in simple terms always amazed and inspired me.

Emmanuel was also a very kind and sincere person who deeply cared about his students. I often came to his office without prior arrangement, and our discussions were informal and fun. I will always remember how he played with a soccer ball in his office during the brainstorm of some ideas, our hangout in a bar after the reading group, and his laughter after which you could not stop smiling. He wanted to unite students’ macro group not only as colleagues but also as friends. It is hard to imagine Littauer without him. Evgenii Fadeev

Emmanuel was kind and supportive, and he had so much left to do. I remember a presentation at the NBER Summer Institute in 2019, when he was presenting on markups and efficiency in front of almost entirely all tenured faculty, and he was the professor to the professors. And yet, he took the time to understand my work and invited me back warmly to talk to him. He will be deeply missed, and we will not know where the field would have gone with him here. - Justin Bloesch

Emmanuel has been there for me since the beginning of graduate school and, day by day, he gained my complete trust. Working with him has been the most intense and extraordinary intellectual experience of my life. I’ll always remember his infinite love for learning and his insatiable curiosity. For me he was a brave dreamer: deeply conscious of limits but always ready to challenge them. Emmanuel loved his students, he believed in young minds who want to do things differently, he pushed me beyond my limits with his genuine and warm support. His absence is devastating but his advice and memories will stay with me forever. - Veronica De Falco

I did not know Emmanuel Farhi very well, but I knew of his incredible advising and mentorship from the experiences of a few close friends in grad school who had him as their advisor. And even though he did not know me very well (outside of taking his macro course my first year), he was always so kind to me even outside of Littauer. During my first year, I ran into him in the CVS in Harvard Square. Instead of saying hi and walking ahead of me – as he could easily have done, especially since I was carrying some things and walking less quickly – he slowed his pace so he could walk alongside me back to campus. During that conversation, he was genuinely interested in my background, asking about my prior work experiences and what led me to grad school. In subsequent years, he would always say hi when I ran into him on campus or in Hemenway gym. These seemingly small acts of kindness made a difference to me, because it made me feel like I was part of a community. I hope Emmanuel’s loved ones can find peace in his memory.  Lisa Abraham

I have this one nice story about Emmanuel to share. It was my role to impersonate him during the Christmas skit, and a few days had passed after that. Unbeknownst to me, another professor had asked the organizer for the recording and then they must have shared it around.

Emmanuel saw me in the corridor a few nights afterward- "You are the one who impersonated me on that video no? Walk with me..." and he let me stew a little as we went up to his office.

And he said "You know for the last two days half the department has knocked on my door just to tell me about your video. I open my door and they are already laughing. Everybody, I mean really everybody has seen it. I have been sent this video by people on the west coast, people in Europe - I'm talking about people I haven't even seen this year. Even a wife of a professor here sent it to me. And I knew I wouldn't like it, so I didn't watch it. But then last night, before I went home, I finally opened it..." He turned and broke a smile, "And it was pretty good."
I said, "Oh, I'm glad you took it well. Not everyone likes to be impersonated."
He looked straight at me and unlocked his door. "Oh, I didn't say I took it well. But remember, your macro lunch is always coming." And then without breaking eye contact, he slowly shut the door.

I always liked him after that. That is the good-humored Emmanuel I will remember. Andrew Lilley

Emmanuel is the best advisor who cares about his students so much. His office door was always open, so that you could walk in and talk to him at any time. I always remember that he repeatedly told me to be ambitious about research, think big and never take easy shortcuts. He encouraged me to enjoy intellectual fun, to explore my passion without limits or boundaries. I keep thinking of him standing in the hallway of the Littauer second floor, smiling: "come talk to me."

He is also the most responsible professor who cares about each student in his class. I TFed for his first year PhD macro sequence class in the past spring semester. I was so surprised that even though he has already taught the class for over 10 years, he still went through the materials with me before every class. He initiated the very welcomed "bonus slides": to give a 10-minute bonus talk at the last 10 minutes of every lecture, trying to bridge the classical theories and frontier research. He carefully discussed what the best inspiring papers to be put into the bonus slides. I still remember one morning before the class, he emailed me saying that he found a new paper that suited best for that day's lecture and that we'd better update the slides soon. He also organized weekly lunches with students, to talk about their life and share his wisdom of the world. And every time he will have steak frites. How I wish I could TF for him or take his class again! - Shushu Liang

I cannot say how grateful I am to Emmanuel. He is an exceptional mentor, who both shaped me as an economist and took care of me as a person. I always admired his works: they capture the essence of a whole debate in a simple and elegant manner, and have countless applications which reveal his deep knowledge of so many fields of Economics. This sharp and deep thinking was apparent in every seminar and conversation. In the beginning I wouldn’t dare talking to him about my work. But I am so glad that it eventually happened! Much as Emmanuel’s teaching and advising fundamentally shaped me, he helped me to write a paper that is my own, and to write it in the best possible way. He is a real mentor, one who has fun talking to his students! He has been extremely supportive and available throughout my job market, with all the uncertainty and decision making involved. I kept being surprised at how quickly he would read my thoughts and feelings. He would always offer an insightful perspective, gently bringing in some practical common sense, and at the same time deeply respecting my preferences.

I will greatly miss dropping by Emmanuel’s office and finding him there, with his door open, asking to give him “five” minutes to finish a thought. His students are very diverse, and at the same time they all inherited some of his style. I was always struck by this fact; and I am honored to be one of them.  Elisa Rubbo

From the Media:

The Economist,  July 2020