Born in Sarajevo, the son of two economists, Dr. Kamenica had a happy childhood until war broke out. He, his mother and sister escaped, landing as refugees in the US. A fan of the show “90210,” Emir had a view of America based on images of Beverly Hills privilege. Placed with his family in a run-down Atlanta apartment complex, and enrolled in a public school where gunfire broke out in the halls, he suddenly inhabited the grimmer side of America. Back in Sarajevo, meanwhile, his father was murdered.
Assigned to write an essay for class, and barely able to speak English, Emir plagiarized a passage from his favorite novel, certain he wouldn’t be caught because the book was written in Bosnian. A substitute teacher, amazed at the work, helped Emir win an interview at Paideia, an elite private school in Atlanta.
In a 2013 National Public Radio interview with financial writer Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The Big Short), Dr. Kamenica confessed to the plagiarism. But when Mr. Lewis and NPR tracked down that substitute teacher, she recalled being impressed by the young student’s overall performance, rather than any single essay.
Even more remarkable than that confession is Dr. Kamenica’s recollection, in the NPR interview, of how he comported himself as an applicant in his interview at Paideia—with humility and dogged earnestness.
“I’m a Bosnian refugee. My school is really bad. Can I please go here?” he asked the admissions woman interviewing him.
After learning that tuition was beyond his reach and that the aid-application deadline had passed, Emir said again, “I’m a Bosnian refugee. My school is really, really bad. Can I please, please go here?”
The school admitted him. From Paideia he earned a scholarship to Harvard, where he obtained a PhD in economics in 2006. The Booth School hired him the same year. His subsequent work has shown why.
One paper Dr. Kamenica co-authored showed that wives who earn more than their husbands experience greater unhappiness and a 50 percent higher rate of divorce. Which gender typically initiated those breakups—the lower-earning husband or higher-earning wife? In an interview with the Brunswick Review, Dr. Kamenica shrugged, saying it didn’t matter. “It’s nearly impossible to be happier than your spouse,” he said.