Lecture for young economists by Jacques-Francois Thisse

Редакция NBJ сделала краткий конспект лекции Жака Франсуа Тисса, самого цитируемого экономиста среди аффилированных с российскими университетами и научного руководителя Лаборатории теории рынков и пространственной экономики. 

How I came into economics from mathematics

I was trained as a mathematician at first. And you know, very much like in Russia, for the French people pure mathematics is really pure. Although, I was brainwashed, it was an extremely solid training.

At the time I clearly understood that to be a pure mathematician you must be born with something special, you must be gifted, just like it is in music. If you do not have this gift, you may become a good teacher but you will never become a great mathematician. You know whether you are a great mathematician when you are 20-22 years old. The Fields medal, which is the counterpart of the Nobel prize in mathematics, is usually given to people who are below 40; it is thought of as if you don’t produce anything important before the age of 40, you will never produce anything important. It is not true in economics.

I realised that I loved maths and I was not gifted enough, and being politically motivated, like many others, I thought economics could be something interesting. So, once I found the words on the door “Econometrics” I said to myself: “metrics” — it might have something to do with maths or economics. I knocked on the door, there was a young teacher there, and I asked him: “Do you mind if I sit down at your class?” He looked at me and said: “Come in, take a seat”. After this lecture I told myself: “I like that! This is what I want to do!”

«Piled Higher and Deeper» by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

How economics differs from mathematics

But having been brainwashed with maths, I started with thoughts like that: “You know, you are not supposed to do that because you didn’t check whether the function was integrable, you didn’t check that you can differentiate this function.” And the teacher would get twisted: “What are you talking about? We do economics, we don’t want to do this!” In economics you don’t need to prove that you can differentiate the function or that you can integrate the function or to prove that the function is Lebesgue measurable. So it made me change my views on maths and learn to be more pragmatic. I was very excited and my training in maths was extremely useful. I am sure that many of you are very well trained in maths in high school, much better than in many other countries. Keep in mind that the training in maths is something which gives you a comparative advantage: you will be more precise, you will understand the difference between the necessary and the sufficient conditions. Many politicians do not understand such difference, but you do know it and that is really important.

In my econometrics classes we had to invert the matrix X’X and the exam was eight hours long. Why? Because we were given 4 hours to invert a matrix 40 by 40 by hand, so I will never forget this. In microeconomics we were taught Keynesian equilibrium which was totally inconsistent with general equilibrium. However, it did not occur to people that in one class you were taught one thing and in the other class you were taught the opposite. At that time students were supposed to stay silent. If you were a student and asked a question – forget it! – no questions.  Things have changed a lot since then and I am very happy about it.

Why you need environment in Academia

There are people who can do research alone, like great physicians, people like Einstein. Einstein worked in a patents office in Bern, in Switzerland and in the evenings he wrote his paper. But he was a genius — so forget people like Einstein. I hope that you are a potential Einstein but there are not many of them in the world. I am not an Einstein.

But if you can interact with other people, then you have something. We cooperate to discuss things with other good people, and sometimes become friends because we work together. When I worked with my friend Jean Gabszewicz, we spent hours, days, weeks together. He was a heavy smoker, and I did not smoke, so when I once got back home, my wife said: “What is wrong with your clothes?” It absorbed all the smoke from him. But eventually we became friends. He could call me at night to say: «By the way I know how to do it” and I could call him back at 7 o’clock and say: «No, no, no, it’s not like that». It was exciting.

The research is exciting but you need a good environment. Unless you are a genius like Einstein, you need a good environment, you need people with whom you can interact.

In the Silicon Valley you might work in a small company with 5 or 6 employees. Imagine you almost know how to build a new device but you need something which is not on the market. You take a coffee or a drink with your friend and explain: “you know, I need something and I don’t know where to find it”. Usually your friends are people who work in a similar environment or in domains which are related to yours. In the evening your friend might think: “wait a minute, I guess I know how to produce that.” Together you start a small venture, a small company with just the two of you, and he produces what you need. In a few days after he produced that, it will go to the Internet, but you will have the product days before anybody else, so you are the first one in the market. When it comes to research, to any intellectual activity, physical proximity still matters. The whole is more that the sum of the parts, but altogether we produce more than the sum of each one of us can produce.

«Piled Higher and Deeper» by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com


Why research is exciting — academic freedom

There are times when you think that you have a great idea, or the result. And the week after that you say: «Oh shit, we made some mistakes». One day we can be extremely happy, and the week after that we are totally unhappy. A second ago you were happy, and now you are very happy and right after extremely unhappy, the fluctuations in Academia are big. But even though sometimes we can be unhappy, we have the feeling that we live, we do something, and we are the main actors of our life.

You know, academic freedom is priceless. You are free to tell the member of a government: «No-no-no, that’s not what you should do. You’re wrong.» You can tell some businessmen: «No-no-no, you are wrong.» Who else can say that? Who are the people who have this freedom?

Of course, I have classes, I have to teach, I have meetings with department. But I don’t want to work on something because I’ve been told to do it. This feeling of freedom is priceless: you can decide what you do in almost all of the cases, even when you teach. Yes, you have to teach microeconomics, but the way you teach — you choose it. You are not told to teach page 55 one day and page 79 the other. No! You choose how to do that during your whole life, and, being at my age, I can talk about a whole life. You are very young, extremely young from my point of view and you should know: having this freedom is fantastic. You cannot put the blame for your failures on someone else, you take the responsibility because you chose to work on it. Sometimes some people do not like that, and it’s not easy to manage your life and your freedom, but for me it is great.

«Piled Higher and Deeper» by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

I started doing research when I was 24 and now I’m 72, so I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years. I never get bored. You have some economic freedom when you do research, so you choose to do research on what you like. This is intellectually challenging. You will feel unhappy, depressed, but whatever you do in life, whatever your job is — you will feel unhappy and depressed.

But in Academia you choose the topic for which you are depressed, which makes a big difference.


Над материалом работали: Елисеева Виталия, Смирнов Олег, Святослав Тюпин,  Валерия Кука, Александр Сенаторов

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