Noble Corner – Jean Triole – Contributions by Josh Lerner, Patrick Rey, Jean Charles Rochet, Alessandro Pavan, E. Glen Weyl, Emmanuel Farhi, Sergei Kovbasyuk, Eric Mengus

Josh Lerner (Harvard Business School)

I have had the privilege of working with Jean Tirole over the last fifteen years on a variety of projects related to open source, standard setting, and patent pools, as well as related topics on the organization of and policies around innovation. In addition to his academic work, which the Nobel committee did a great job of describing, Jean is a standout on many other dimensions. He has been a tireless institution builder, establishing the Toulouse School of Economics as a preeminent place for thought and training in continental Europe. He is also a terrific mentor and all-round nice guy: down to earth, interested in other people, and always helpful – not always qualities one associates with successful academics (or successful people in other walks of life as well!).

Patrick Rey (IDEI, TSE)

I first met Jean as a student, when by pure luck I attended a course in IO that he was teaching in Paris, in what would nowadays be called a M2 program. This course was first of all a real eye-opener, not only because of the content (I discovered that I enjoyed IO, to which I devoted a large part of my work afterwards), but also because of Jean’s approach to the literature: I was very much impressed by the way in which he could convey key intuitions in the simplest manner, and present a large body of literature in such an organized way, and it has certainly had a huge impact on my own approach to teaching – ex post, it is difficult for me to say whether I liked the field of IO in and of itself, or whether I liked it because of the way it was presented; I wondered what I would have done if I Jean had been teaching macro-econometrics…

But this first interaction was also quite an experience, because what began as a series of questions and answers in the classroom soon became a collaboration on a research project, which produced a couple of papers, one of which in a topfive. (I remember Eric Maskin, introducing Jean’s presidential address for the Econometric Society, mentioning what a terrible thing it had been to have Jean as first student – because this misled Eric to believe that all students were like him, a source of endless disappointment and frustration later on… In the same vein, having Jean as a teacher misled me to believe that producing top-five publications was a very easy task, with similar effects afterwards…)

Fortunately for me, this first interaction marked the beginning of a warm and friendly relationship over the years, during which Jean never stopped providing not only scientific leadership and guidance, but also advice and feedback on my projects and my work, and support in many ways. Jean had also a large impact not on both on my professional itinerary but also the life of my family: Jean’s help to obtain a visiting professorship at MIT led us to spend one year in Cambridge, which Jean and his wife Nathalie contributed to make even more enjoyable,  and together with Jean-Jacques Laffont, Jean was responsible for our coming to Toulouse – a move that everyone in our family enjoyed, every day since then. Of course, many of the great moments with Jean are associated with his passion for research. I keep a fond memory of a year-long reading workgroup, together with Jean, Roger Guesnerie and Bernard Caillaud, where we spent Tuesday late afternoons exploring the literature on regulation. It was fascinating to search for new ideas, identify key ones and grasp their intuition. This contributed a lot to determining my professional career choices – and eventually convinced me to become a researcher.

Jean Charles Rochet (U. Zürich and IDEI)

It has been a privilege and a pleasure for me to write nine research articles and a book with Jean. Our first article was presented in a Fed conference in 1995 and I remember the discussant, Raghu Rajan, stating that our article was “so French” (by which he meant communist) since we were arguing that public intervention was needed to avoid systemic risk on interbank markets. This makes all the more ridiculous the critiques that Jean received by some French left wing (or should I say left bank?) journalists accusing him of having yielded to the demons of international finance.

Another memory is when we presented our analysis of credit card markets in the Visa offices in Mountain View. At the end of our talk, a top Visa executive told us: “if I understood you correctly, you conclude that the Fed should indeed regulate us,” which was obviously the opposite of the conclusion they expected from us. This did not prevent Visa from continuing sponsoring IDEI’s research for several years.

Working with Jean is a rewarding but humbling exercise. I remember several occasions where I came with excitement to his office presenting him with research ideas that had come to my mind the night before. He would listen to me carefully and would conclude something like: “this is a good idea, but it was already explored by Masters and Johnson in 1953 but rejected by the empirical analysis of Villeroy et Bosch in 1976.” I also remember my frustration when he showed me his first draft of our first joint paper. Since I did not have anything to add, I tried to suggest crucial changes  such as “Don’t you think we should get rid of the comma on page 1 line 5?” He would respond something like: “certainly not; there are many reasons why I want to keep this comma…” Jean has one of the most important qualities for a successful researcher: he is incredibly stubborn! When Jean is your office neighbor, which was my case for almost 20 years, you do not need Google or JSTOR. If you have some questions about an economic article, it is more efficient to ask Jean directly because he will also give you a critical analysis of the article and you will not have to actually read this article (while writing this I realize Jean will be mad at me, so let me rephrase: you do have to use JSTOR!).

More seriously, if I were to single out the most impressive talent of Jean, I would say it is his unique capacity to understand what other people have in mind, which is a strong form of empathy. I remember many occasions in which a young researcher would present her ideas so awkwardly that I had the impression nobody understood what she meant. But then Jean would discreetly go see her at the end of the talk and give her a whole page of hand-written notes showing how to present better the idea and giving the important references that were related to this idea.

Alessandro Pavan (Northwestern University)

The importance of a great advisor: Writing a thesis under the supervision of Jean Tirole

Most people know Jean Tirole for his dedication to research, his impact on all major fields in economics, his influential books and articles and his achievements and awards. He is equally impressive as an advisor: dedicated, generous and supportive of his students.

I met Jean for the first time in the spring of 1998. At the time I was unsure whether a PhD in Economics was for me, but talking to Jean convinced me once and for all. His passion for research and his energy and curiosity are contagious. The three years I spent in Toulouse will always be one of the most beautiful and significant periods of my life. Jean played a major role in the development of my thinking and my style of research. While he was careful not to directly shape my research agenda, seeing how he approached problems by connecting ideas and techniques from various literatures had a great influence on my work. Jean also taught me to be ambitious and stay away from easy but unsatisfactory answers. After a few meetings, I quickly learned how to interpret his polite language and translate such comments as “Alessandro, this is nice; however, you may want to consider also X and Y” into “Come on, Alessandro, be serious, this is no good; come back in a week with something more promising.” Working with Jean can be challenging and somewhat intimidating, but it is also inspirational and highly rewarding. It is impossible to describe just how much I learned from those weekly meetings. At the end of my third year in Toulouse, Jean suggested I should visit MIT for a year. The prospect was fascinating, but there was a major obstacle: my wife’s hesitation. Jean offered to talk to her and, of course, managed to convince her (he can be as persuasive and convincing in person as he is in his papers). We ended up visiting MIT, trying the US academic job market, and are now living in Chicago. None of this would have been possible without Jean. I also remember the day he came to dinner at the modest basement in Beacon Hill where my wife and I were living while we were visiting MIT. He brought flowers and a bottle of excellent (obviously French!) wine. This was one of the first occasions in which I started appreciating the openness, curiosity and love for knowledge that Jean  applies not only to economics but to all aspects of life. Despite being busy and overcommitted, Jean has always been generous with his time. I will never forget the care he put into my papers, reading multiple versions and offering detailed comments and suggestions. In my office I still have some of the drafts with Jean’s handwritten comments in the margins. They remind me of what it means to be not just a great researcher but also a dedicated advisor. I try my best to follow his example with my own students (two of whom are now in Toulouse with him), though Jean’s standards are, in fact, impossible to live up to.

  1. Glen Weyl (Microsoft Research New England and University of Chicago)

Memories of Jean Tirole’s advising

At the beginning of 2006, I thought I was interested in behavioral economics and finance, popular topics at Princeton where I did my PhD. As a result, my advisers at Princeton specialized in these areas, including Roland Bénabou, from whom I took behavioral economics. But that summer I went to work for the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division and, through that process, got exposed to antitrust economics. No one at Princeton worked on IO at that time and Roland therefore recommended that  I talk to Jean at a behavioral economics conference I attended that summer. Jean, despite being mobbed by tons of students who wanted to talk to him, took a very serious interest in my work on two-sided markets and even invited me to come and present at Toulouse that December despite my still being an undergraduate. He repeatedly gave me detailed comments on my paper and as I progressed through my career invited me to come back to Toulouse for a month each year. During that time, the conversations we had fundamentally challenged the way I thought about  many questions in economics. Jean’s command of so many areas of economics helped me see how different literatures and arguments weave together. He taught me to avoid the intellectual laziness of seeing different economic ideas as separate and unrelated to one another and forced me to always try to reconcile different and apparently contradictory strains in economic thought. That dialectical process has become the foundation of so much of my work that in a very real sense I most of my papers to a style Jean taught me. Perhaps the most impressive thing about talking to Jean is his combination of overwhelming knowledge and insight with his modesty, both personally  and intellectually. Jean never believed he had the complete or final answer to any question. He was always searching to challenge his own understanding even more vigorously than he insightfully challenged mine and that of other colleagues in seminar. It is this intellectual restlessness, rather than his stunning work ethic, that I really think accounts for his incredible productivity. Jean could not help himself from exploring the roads of thought that he didn’t have the chances to fully analyze. These roads not taken, but stored away deep inside his mind somewhere, were  much of what made it so much fun to work with Jean. As we worked on our joint paper, I realized that, beyond the countless papers Jean had written, that there were nearly infinite other issues he had thought through in the course of previous projects and seminar discussions that were constantly coming back to the surface in the context of the problem we were working on. This made working with Jean not just incredibly productive, but enormously educational, as I felt like in every conversation  I learned a new paper Jean had never written, but should have. His incredible recall of this richness of ideas was particularly ironic, because Jean was constantly taking notes and remarking on how he could not believe I did not take notes, because he claimed his memory was poor. Another example of his genuine, if misplaced, modesty.

Emmanuel Farhi (Harvard University)

Jean is an intellectual giant, one of the greatest economists of all times. But I do not want to use these few lines to pay tribute to his enormous scientific contribution, or to celebrate his unique mind. Instead, I want to convey some other, more personal and human qualities that set him apart, and that are even more remarkable given his incredible achievements: a profound, and always renewed passion for economics; an insatiable  curiosity and eagerness to discover and learn; a relentless tenacity; an unshakable belief that economics is a serious enterprise that can and must contribute to improving the world; a strong sense of duty and a constant desire to give back to the community; an absolute personal and intellectual integrity and fairness; an unbounded generosity; the deepest respect and interest for others; an indestructible loyalty; an incredible humility, simplicity, class and true gentlemanliness. Jean is a mentor, an example, an intellectual companion and a dear friend. I am overwhelmed with joy, emotion and pride at his winning the Nobel Prize.

Sergei Kovbasyuk (Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance)

 It was always easy to work with Jean. His unparalleled efficiency and concentration made interactions with him very smooth: whenever I made an appointment with Jean I was sure that at the agreed time he would be there having already looked at the notes that I sent him. As sure I was about the timing of a meeting with Jean, I was more sure about its outcome. Whatever idea I  shared with Jean he would always grasp it in just a few minutes and would comprehend it much better than me. But then he would never explain it to me, instead he would leave me struggling to understand it on my own (actually a couple of times I succeeded). Usually, Jean would pose several deep questions to me, the deepness of those questions was probably deliberately chosen to fit the limits of my intellectual capacity, and those questions would keep me  puzzled and motivated to think. As a PhD student I could not have been happier, Jean would make me concentrate on the economic questions we discussed and all other concerns would appear secondary, and this was the perfect mindset for someone making his first steps in research. This was an amazing experience: no matter how much I thought I understood before seeing Jean, after seeing him I always realized how much more I could potentially understand if I just keep thinking. So I kept thinking and I really enjoyed it. As one girl said to me once: “tu penses trop.” She said so because she never met Jean. Thanks to him I know I never think enough.

Eric Mengus (HEC Paris)

It is mostly a sequence of unexpected circumstances that led me to study economics. On my career track to becoming a civil servant, I completed an internship at the Banque de France, the French central bank. There, I discovered Jean’s works about liquidity, banking and all their connections with monetary policy or regulation, and this is what really motivated me to do a PhD: I wanted to  study Jean Tirole’s (macro)economics. Studying with Jean Tirole during those three years was really a great pleasure. This is only mentioned by some senior academics, but Jean Tirole is nice with his students and, in particular, as far as I can say, with his PhD students. And how valuable this is! It was also a great chance. Of course, discussing with Jean Tirole is always double-edged: great comments and questions but also a great amount of work afterward! But, overall, I was always impressed by his availability or, even, his ability to grasp better than I do my own ideas. I am very pleased to see Jean receiving the Nobel Prize, as it honors a great researcher as well as a great adviser!