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.


I wonder what happens to people after they win a big award like the JBC, Nobel, MacArthur, Lasker, National Medal of Science,etc. My guess for Murphy is nothing as he seems like a guy that doesn't care about awards.


Perfect - not a single word describing a contribution to human knowledge by Kevin - just a lot of praise and hero-worship.

A Brave Horse

I think it's a much better use of Steve Levitt's time to write some personal anecdotes rather than summarizing Murphy's abstracts which can be found at the MacArthur Foundation's website.

hung like a brave horse

Are there any links to audio/video/transcripts of any of his lectures out there?


Sometimes ya gotta smile at the irony (unintended?) of it all. Anon 10:14--- did you know Stephen Dubner wrote a book entitled "Confessions of a Hero Worshiper"? An excellent read, by the way.


Thanks for the tip! I see that Levitt isn't the first fellow the former Catholic has become infatuated with!


Thanks for writing this. I do consulting work with Kevin on a regular basis, and he's just scary smart and a great guy.


As a graduate student at Chicago, I was never afraid of hearing what anyone thought about my work -- even the Nobelists -- during a workshop, expect for Murphy. When he opens his mouth, it's over.


Responding to Anonymous No. 1:

It has been my experience that the more important a person seems to be, the less they want to receive fame or attention. The first time I met the "star" of our department, he told me he took the job because he could spend time with his family. I had no idea who he was and could not pronounce his last name, so he suggested I call him by his first. Unfortunately, everyone (including myself) fears him because we all are familiar with his accomplishments, and feel that we would be wasting his time with small talk.


anon: When he opens his mouth, it's over.

That is so hot. And how fitting, given the unbelievable amount of metaphorical boot-licking and ...... Well, you get the picture.

I wonder if Robin (Dubner) is jealous watching Batman fawn all over Murphy.


Wow -- economists throwing barbs at one another! I am squirming with excitement!

seriously tho--

thanks for the website and book


I'd also be interested in listening to audio transcripts of his lectures.....

Will Slaughter

I had the very great privilege of taking Professor's Murphy's microeconomics class at the GSB. It was without a doubt my favorite course at Chicago...and got me in the habit of auditing whichever of his other lectures I had time to attend. He represents everything I admire and love about the field of economics.

Jim McCabe

Like Will (hey Will), I was able to take one of Murphy's classes (unfortuntely I missed out on micro, but I was able to take his joint class with Gary Becker and Ted Snyder), and found it thoroughly enlightening. Snyder made the point to us one time that both Murphy and Becker seem to be able to discourse effortlessly on just about any topic you can bring up, from the environment to sports to taxes to marriage. He was right, and it made for a terrific classroom experience.

BTW, if you have a quibble with Leavitt's tribute to a respected collegue, I suggest you strap on some cojones and give your name.



Thanks for the advice. My trouble with Levitt is that he and his pal Dubner are addicted to hero-worshipping and self-aggrandizement. Alert readers will see that Levitt's breathless comment, "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." is an allusion to the fact that he and Kevin are both winners of the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to economists under the age of 40.

I think it's hilarious that Levitt did not have ONE substantive comment to make about his colleague. Of course, I still have absolutely no idea what Levitt's substantive contribution to economics is either, so it makes sense.

Jim McCabe

Well, I can't say that I know much about Levitt, other than Freakonomics, which I still haven't read, so it's hard to answer the question for him. and it may be true that the allusion to the Clark medal was somewhat self-serving, though perhaps you're reading too much into it.

Still, I think your complaint about his commentary misses his point. He's not putting forth an argument about Kevin Murphy, which would require a basic grounding in substantive fact. He's simply giving his personal opinion. I can tell you that the Chicago faculty, not reknowned for being particularly humble or deferential toward anyone in the field, treat Murphy with tremendous respect, which is a point Levitt makes and is fairly strong evidence that his contributions are more than cosmetic. Perhaps Levitt simply feels that when a colleague is awarded a MacArthur Grant, blogging extensively about why he deserves it is somewhat beside the point.

I myself am not a follower of the academic world closely enough to advance an argument in favor of, or against, anyone in particular. But Levitt's basic point, that Murphy is an impressive guy, is simply a personal observation that I happen to share. After taking his class with Becker, I seriously considered going after my PhD at Chicago, which I'd never thought about serously before. That isn't a defense of his substantive contributions to economics, but not every word of praise has to be, does it?



I'm a big fan of Professor Murphy's, too. But I was dismayed at the time it was written, and remain so, by this paper he co-authored offering (pre-war) a cost-benefit analysis of the Iraq war:,%20Weighing%20the%20Costs%20(March%202003).pdf

(If you have trouble with the link just google Murphy, Iraq, and cost-benefit.)

Princess Leia

Anon above -- I'm interested in hearing more about why you didn't like Prof. Murphy's article as I'm very much a lay reader of economic papers.

Also, Prof. Murphy cites Prof. Nordhaus's article on the same topic. Can someone read the two and tell me if they jive, or are these guys butting heads? Here is the link:

Prof. Levitt, help?? I'm very curious. Thank you.

Edward Chen

Anonymous wrote:

Thanks for the advice. My trouble with Levitt is that he and his pal Dubner are addicted to hero-worshipping and self-aggrandizement.


I bet you have trouble with a lot of things in life. Chill out, man.

I thought the entry was great, and gave a different perspective on an economist than one would normally read. As others have said, it was not meant to be an academic tribute.


the davis and murphy paper was really great, a good example of how stringent economic analysis can be applied to more or less everything.