Sunday, July 4, 2010

Houses of Economists- Carmen M. Reinhart

Rogoff and Carmen at Carmen's house

After much hand-wringing, he decided to return to the United States to attend Yale, which overlooked his threadbare high school transcript. He considered majoring in Russian until Jeremy Bulow, a classmate who is now an economics professor at Stanford, began evangelizing about economics.

Mr. Rogoff took an econometrics course, reveling in its precision and rigor, and went on to focus on comparative economic systems. He interrupted a brief stint in a graduate program in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to prepare for the world chess championships, which were held only every three years.

After becoming an “international grandmaster,” the highest title awarded in chess, when he was 25, he decided to quit chess entirely and to return to M.I.T. He did so because he had snared the grandmaster title and because he realized that he would probably never be ranked No. 1.

He says it took him a long time to get over the game, and the euphoric, almost omnipotent highs of his past victories.

“To this day I get letters, maybe every two years, from top players asking me: ‘How do I quit? I want to quit like you did, and I can’t figure out how to do it,’ ” he says. “I tell them that it’s hard to go from being at the top of a field, because you really feel that way when you’re playing chess and winning, to being at the bottom — and they need to prepare themselves for that.”

He returned to M.I.T., rushed through what he acknowledges was a mediocre doctoral dissertation, and then became a researcher at the Federal Reserve — where he said he had good role models who taught him how to be, at last, “professional” and “serious.” ...

And, unlike Mr. Rogoff, she has never been hired by an Ivy League school. But measured by how often her work is cited by colleagues and others, this woman whom several colleagues describe as a “firecracker” is, by a long shot, the most influential female economist in the world.

Like Mr. Rogoff, she took a circuitous route to her present position.

Born in Havana as Carmen Castellanos, she is quick-witted and favors bright, boldly printed blouses and blazers. As a girl, she memorized the lore of pirates and their trade routes, which she says was her first exposure to the idea that economic fortunes — and state revenue in particular — “can suddenly disappear without warning.”

She also lived with more personal financial and social instability. After her family fled Havana for the United States with just three suitcases when she was 10, her father traded a comfortable living as an accountant for long, less lucrative hours as a carpenter. Her mother, who had never worked outside the home before, became a seamstress.

“Most kids don’t grow up with that kind of real economic shock,” she says. “But I learned the value of scarcity, and even the sort of tensions between East and West. And at a very early age that had an imprint on me.”

With a passion for art and literature — even today, her academic papers pun on the writings of Gabriel García Márquez — she enrolled in a two-year college in Miami, intending to study fashion merchandising. Then, on a whim, she took an economics course and got hooked.

When she went to Florida International University to study economics, she met Peter Montiel, an M.I.T. graduate who was teaching there. Recognizing her talent, he helped her apply to a top-tier graduate program in economics, at Columbia University.

At Columbia, she met her future husband, Vincent Reinhart, who is now an occasional co-author with her. They married while in graduate school, and she quit school before writing her dissertation to try to make some money on Wall Street.

“We were newlyweds, and neither of us had a penny to our name,” she says. She left school so that they “could have nice things and a house, the kind of things I imagined a family should have.”

She spent a few years at Bear Stearns, including one as chief economist, before deciding to finish her graduate work at Columbia and return to her true love: data mining. “I have a talent for rounding up data like cattle, all over the plain,” she says.

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