Friday, January 15, 2016

Original thinkers need breathing space

Simon Kuper, a Financial Times columnist, is among other things a sports journalist. But he also writes about other topics and interviews all sorts of personalities. In his last piece, he describes common traits of what he calls "original thinkers." Among the examples he gives, he mentions a football manager and an economics Nobel prize winner. The manager is Arsenal' Arsène Wenger, and the economist is Jean Tirole. They have in common not only that they are cosmopolitan French, but also that they value more having autonomy to work and breathe rather than money or new appointments: "As manager of Arsenal, Arsène Wenger has built a zone of autonomy unmatched in modern football. Last spring, when he was again getting hammered for not winning prizes, I spent a morning with him and realised to my surprise that he thinks he has the best job in football. Wenger would love to win but he cares more about shaping players and developing new methods. Arsenal has let him do that almost undisturbed since 1996.(...) Wenger has repeatedly turned down richer clubs. Similarly, Billy Beane, who pioneered the statistical revolution in sport, has remained general manager of the little Oakland A’s baseball club since 1997. Beane learnt his lesson as a teenager, when he accepted $125,000 to play baseball instead of going to Stanford University. He soon regretted the choice, and decided never to let money guide his decisions again. (...) Beane and Wenger (the two most interesting people I’ve met in sport) have run their clubs longer than almost any of their peers. That’s because other good performers move in pursuit of money and trophies — that is, in the hope of becoming “winners”.  And in a previous interview with Jean Tirole: "Tirole, 62, has an unusual vantage point: almost uniquely among the French elite, he isn’t in central Paris. He asks: “You know the expression ‘monter à Paris’ [broadly, ‘going up to Paris’]? For many people, Paris is what you can best do in your career.” Instead, in 1991, he left his professorship at MIT in Boston for the delightful backwater of Toulouse because his friend, the late economist Jean-Jacques Laffont, persuaded him they could make a French university department world-class. (...) But if the far-right leader Marine Le Pen becomes president in 2017, would that ruin his hopes for France? “Yes,” sighs Tirole. “It ruins the country’s image but also the country’s economics. Leaving the euro, nationalising firms, pouring more money into civil-service jobs, and stopping migrants and imports will make markets even more inefficient, will increase the public deficit, and we will lose the discipline of the euro."

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