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Cuong Le Van

The math wiz

Why did I come to France? I was good at math.” That was exactly 40 years ago. Because he knew how to juggle equations, Cuong Le Van left Saigon for France, after childhood in Vietnam, to attend preparatory schools and then the École des Mines engineering school in Nancy. After graduation he decided to stay in France. “I did not go directly into economics: I made a brief excursion into mathematical hydrogeology, but I quickly gave it up. It wasn't my thing.”

His life as an economist began in 1973 with a position at the Applied Macroeconomic Analysis Group (GAMA) in Nanterre. “I contributed to the development of a macroeconometric model with over 3000 equations.” Applied macroeconomics analyzes variations in production, investments, consumption, etc. over time. But for Le Van, some parts of the model seemed a little “cooked,” lacking theoretical fundamentals. So he began a post-graduate program, followed by a doctoral thesis on “The Mathematics of Decision” (game theory, general equilibrium, fixed points, theoretical microeconomics) at the University of Paris-Dauphine, which led to a job at CNRS in 1981. He joined a theoretical economics laboratory, CEPREMAP, before becoming the Assistant Director of CERMSEM in 1999 and Interim Director of GREDEG in Sophia-Antipolis (southern France), where he has worked since October 2004.1

Le Van is now a research scientist specializing in optimal growth models. “Concretely, the goal is to create models which can, for example, let you choose investment and consumption options over time.” A bit too abstract? Le Van dives into a well thought-out demonstration, drawing detailed figures on a blank sheet. “Consider a developing country whose economy isn't taking off despite investments. This type of model shows that the country is not investing correctly. First it must make initial fixed investments for infrastructure (roads, electricity, etc.). This is a common problem due to the attractiveness of new technologies. Countries invest in them before they have even acquired solid foundations. But they do not add up to a magic formula…”

The example of developing countries is not trivial for this man who, although he returned to visit his native land in 1977, did not really begin scientific cooperation with Vietnam until the early 1990s when the country began economic liberalization. “In the case of Vietnam, the optimal growth models underline the link between economic growth and… undeclared payments. At the very start of the period of economic liberalization, such payments were beneficial. They allowed the economy to take off and encouraged people to work when they had previously been used to ration coupons. But today, those payments are eating away at the economic system.” For a decade now, Le Van has been watching Vietnam closely, namely by “training the trainers” on-site. “The teaching of economics was deficient. There were not enough teachers 'up to speed' on market economy theories.” Therefore Le Van organized summer schools in Hanoi with the help of CNRS, the Universities of Paris 1 and Paris 13, and UNESCO. “We have already had six sessions since 1996.” His efforts have not been in vain. The National Economics University in Hanoi recently created a General Economics Department independent from the Political Economy Department—a first. Furthermore, an international conference called PET06 (Public Economic Theory 06) will be organized at the same university in August 2006. Up to 300 people are expected to attend.

Jérôme Blanchart

1. CEPREMAP: Centre d'études prospectives d'économie mathématique appliquées à la planification (Center for Prospective Economy Studies in Mathematics Applied to Planning). CNRS-only unit, Paris.
CERMSEM: Centre de recherche de mathématiques, statistiques et d'économie mathématique (Research Center in Mathematics, Statistics, and Mathematical Economics). Joint lab: CNRS / Université de Paris 1.
GREDEG: Groupe de recherche en droit, économie et gestion (Research Group in Law, Economics, and Management). Joint lab: CNRS/Université de Nice, Sophia-Antipolis.

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Cuong Le Van


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