Nothing Freaky About His Economics

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Harvard economist Raj Chetty's resume reads like every economist's secret fantasy — a tenured position at the University of California, Berkeley, at 23; the youngest tenured professor in the department of economics at Harvard (he took only three years to complete his doctorate after graduation); rated by The Economist as one of the world's eight best economists at 28; being among the world's most cited young economists, and now in the list of 23 winners of this year's MacArthur Foundation's Genius grant, which also went to heavyweights like Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz and paediatric neurosurgeon Benjamin Warf. Chetty, 33, who is living the dream, is, however, maddeningly modest about his achievements. "The recognition just shows that there is a wider audience and acceptance of the kind of work that I have been doing," he says over the phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Chetty's "kind of work" has never quite followed the tested turf. He has worked on ambitious and far-ranging topics, from unemployment to taxation to the impact of teaching on quality of life, but with an emphasis on hard data. "I believe in combining speculation with a quasi-experimental approach. Public policies need to take into account both the talking points and scientific data to be really effective," he says. Most of his research has followed this approach of fine-tuning economic theories behind public policies.

In a study released in 2010, Chetty and his co-authors tracked one million US students from childhood to adulthood and found out that early exposure to a teacher of excellent standard resulted in an enhanced lifetime income, emphasising the need for greater investment in primary education. Earlier, Chetty used a similar approach to calculate the optimal amount and period of unemployment benefits — neither so little so that the workers are thrown into acute financial distress, nor so generous that they lose the motivation to look for income. In 2011, he came up with another study on the impact of classroom size on eventual economic success after having studied data of nearly 12,000 primary school students in Tennessee.

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