Suicide of an eminent economist

Martin Weitzman was a highly successful economist who had a distinguished academic career at the most prestigious universities and had been widely tipped to win the Nobel prize for economics. Hence his death by suicide on August 27 at the age of 77 took people by surprise.

Dr. Weitzman was a longtime economics professor at Harvard University before retiring last summer, shortly before being passed over for a Nobel Prize in economics that he was widely expected to win or share. Instead, the honor went to Paul M. Romer and William D. Nordhaus, a climate change specialist who later called Dr. Weitzman “a radically innovative spirit in economics.”

Dr. Weitzman focused not on likely outcomes but on low-probability, high-impact scenarios known as fat tails. He argued — convincingly — that the worst-case possibilities of a warmer planetary future were so bad, they could not be ignored. A Bloomberg tribute last weekdubbed him “the man who got economists to take climate nightmares seriously.”

In 2015, Dr. Weitzman partnered with a former student, Gernot Wagner, to publish “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet.” The book highlighted some of the risks posed by global warming and explored geoengineering, including proposals to reflect sunlight (known as solar radiation management), as a relatively inexpensive way to offset its effects.

The Harvard newspaper has more about his achievements and suggests that failing to win the Nobel prize may have caused him to take his own life.

Weitzman’s research and writings won him a number of accolades, from being an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to winning three awards from the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. His colleagues expected him to win the Nobel Prize last year, which instead went to New York University professor Paul M. Romer and Yale professor William D. Nordhaus.

The New York Times reported that the Nobel decision ushered Weitzman into a period of emotional distress, and that the famous economist wrote a note doubting his ability to make further advances in the economic field.

It is hard for me to imagine that not getting the Nobel prize could have been the sole reason for him to take his own life, given that he has so many other awards and was highly respected by his peers, which is what most academics are grateful to achieve. But then, it is hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be someone for whom getting the prize seems not only possible but probable. The strong feeling of disappointment to be so close to achieving the pinnacle of one’s profession but not quite make it can, I suppose for some people, dwarf the pleasure that one gets from all the many other achievements that brought one so close in the first place.

When people who are highly successful die of suicide, it tends to cause great puzzlement since they seem to have it all. It should remind us that there is rarely a simple explanation for what causes people to take that step.


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