‘Students take pride
to be in his class’
‘When someone is a genius, and he certainly is, it is nice to see
the person not being arrogant. He never lets success go to his head,’
says Professor Carl Morris about Raj Chetty.
Not often do under- grad students take Professor Carl Morris’s class
in statistics designed for
graduate students, but Harvard sophomore Raj Chetty
was among the brave few.
“He was rather quiet, but
he was an A student,” Mor-
ris recalls. “It was a small
class, but he did exceptio-
nally well. All the other stu-
dents were quite old com-
pared to him. He must have
been a little older than 20.
Except for one course
where he got an A minus,
he was a straight A stu-
Morris would discover
later that Chetty had alre-
ady started working on his
PhD thesis. He had a singu-
lar passion, the professor
His 2003 PhD dissertation, ‘Consumption, Commitments, and Risk Preferences,’ shed new light on unemployment
Morris points out it was just the beginning of many innovative studies.
When someone is laid off, should the
government provide high benefits?
Traditional theory says no, because the
general belief is that big benefits seemingly reduce the incentive to find a job.
‘Standard models predict that we should
have no safety net,’ argued Chetty. But
higher benefits are more in line with actual needs, because most Americans have so
much income tied up in commitments,
such as payments for houses, cars, and
‘ There are a lot of things you can’t adjust
in the short term,’ he said, adding that
COURTES Y: RAJ CHE TT Y
Raj Chetty, center, took Professor Carl Morris’s, left, class in statistics designed for
graduate students as an undergrad.
higher benefits could also spur consumer
Today, one of the most honored of Harvard professors, Chetty is a big favorite on
“He is attracting some of the best stu-
dents,” Morris adds. “They want to offer
their best and take pride to be in his class.”
Morris admires the way Chetty has
focused on his academic goals. “From a
freshman to a PhD, he was able to achieve
this in just six years,” he adds. “Even the
best of Harvard students usually take
about nine years to complete this.”
He also praises Chetty’s temperament.
“He is ambitious, but he is also calm and
friendly. When someone is a genius, and
he certainly is, it is nice to see the person
not being arrogant. He is certainly confi-
dent, but he never lets success go to his
“In some ways, he takes up after his
father,” Morris who has known the Chetty
family for quite some time, adds.
— Arthur J Pais
Together with my research group at
Berkeley and Harvard, we have applied
scientific methods to analyze a variety of
policy questions, ranging from the best
way to design corporate tax policies to
evaluating elementary school teachers to
designing unemployment insurance systems.
Being able to tackle these important
issues and see our work have an impact on
the policy debate at a national level is very
rewarding and motivating.
How do you feel when politicians cherry
pick from your reports?
For instance, when one line from your
report was widely quoted in Congressional
discussion (‘It is well known that unemployment benefits raise unemployment
I recognize that politics will always play
a role in any important decision.
My goal is to provide evidence on the key
facts, and what happens from there is
largely outside my hands.
My hope is that in the end, solid evidence
will carry the day, but in the short run, I
accept that other factors may intervene.
A question I have asked most people I
interview is about their biggest fear. The
travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux
told me he was never afraid of not having
ideas for his novels, but he was afraid he
might write a boring novel.
What are your fears?
I am afraid of following a big project
over the years and see that it has not
much of an impact.
I want to use my limited time to maximize my impact by doing work that actually matters.
From time to time I get self doubts, but
then I look at how far I have come in my
research and draw confidence from the
people who believe in my work, and renew
my pursuit. ;
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