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Remembering Richard Cooper

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TweetDecember 24, 2020 —     Richard N. Cooper (Dick), who passed away Wednesday evening at the age of 86, was always young for his age.  Jim Tobin once told me a story from when Dick was a senior staff economist at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (1961-63).  He used to bring his bicycle into his office at the Old Executive Office Building.  As I remember the story, President Kennedy remarked that apparently a high school student worked at the CEA! As recently as a year ago, Dick was still riding his bicycle around Cambridge.  I would join his wonderful (and young!) family on weekend bike rides along the Charles River. He had very wide-ranging interests in economics, informed by a knowledge of history and science.  In recent years he would write and teach courses (and he

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December 24, 2020 —     Richard N. Cooper (Dick), who passed away Wednesday evening at the age of 86, was always young for his age.  Jim Tobin once told me a story from when Dick was a senior staff economist at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (1961-63).  He used to bring his bicycle into his office at the Old Executive Office Building.  As I remember the story, President Kennedy remarked that apparently a high school student worked at the CEA!

As recently as a year ago, Dick was still riding his bicycle around Cambridge.  I would join his wonderful (and young!) family on weekend bike rides along the Charles River.

He had very wide-ranging interests in economics, informed by a knowledge of history and science.  In recent years he would write and teach courses (and he taught up until the very end) on such subjects as the economics of climate change policy and economics of China.  His book review section, at the back of each issue of Foreign Affairs, was top-priority reading for me.

I first became aware of his writings when I was an undergraduate studying international economics.  He had written a 1968 book on The Economics of Interdependence and a 1969 QJE article on the same subject (though much more mathematical).   I have always viewed this research as the original foundation of the study of international cooperation or coordination of macroeconomic policy, which was a big topic, starting in the 1980s.

Dick was modest in his professional persona (though firm in asserting his views in conversation).   He could have done a better marketing job if he wanted to be remembered as the father of “International Cooper-ation.”  It did not help that he avoided the language of game theory. But that is what the idea is, an application the so-called prisoners’ dilemma:  Countries could achieve better outcomes if they committed to joint settings of macroeconomic policy, compared to the Nash non-cooperative equilibrium in which each sets policy on their own.

What he might have lacked in marketing in the ivory tower, he more-than made up for in implementation in the real world.  He was U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs during the years 1977-81. He played a major role in the canonical case of international coordination of fiscal policies: the “locomotive theory” under which the US, Germany and Japan would be the three locomotives who would together use fiscal expansion to pull the world economic train out of the aftermath of the 1974-75 recession.  The theory was put into practice in 1978 in the Bonn Summit of G-7 Leaders.  (The idea of coordinated fiscal expansion became very relevant again in G-20 talks during the Great Recession of 2008-09, and could be once again today.)

A 1971 paper, “Currency Devaluation in Developing Countries,”  is another example where Cooper was way ahead of his time.  It has been widely cited for two things: (1) a simple statistical estimate that national leaders are twice as likely to lose office in the year following a devaluation as otherwise, and (2) an explication (quite possibly the first) of contractionary effects of devaluation on economic activity, which has become a huge topic of analysis in recent decades.  More generally, this study was one of the first to deal with the macroeconomics of emerging market and developing countries, which is now an entire field in itself.

There is so much more one could say.  I will conclude with the personality traits for which I will most remember Dick Cooper.  He always (usefully) insisted that people clarify precisely what they meant, whether it was in conferences or at the dinner table.  I learned something from him every time we talked. He had boundless intellectual curiosity and energy. He looked on the bright side of things.  I will remember him, not just as a unique academic colleague, but as the excellent father of Jennie and Will, and as a good friend whom I will miss very much.

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Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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