Prof. Baldwin's Comments on Prof. Stern's Career at the festschrift, 1994
(excerpted from Quiet Pioneering: Robert M. Stern and His International Economic Legacy, UM Press 1997)
When I was asked to speak at the dinner in honor of Bob Stern, I assumed that I would be only one of several speakers. Appropriate to my personality, I supposed that I would be called on to describe in factual and rather dull terms just what Bob's many academic accomplishments have been. So it was with considerable surprise that I noted in the program that I was the only after-dinner speaker scheduled. I mentioned this to Lucetta when she was visiting Madison and she said that Bob did not want a lot of speakers. I assume it was because he felt he might be somewhat uncomfortable by various speakers lavishing praise on him or relating amusing incidents in their relationships with him. So we start right out by seeing one of Bob's unique abilities, namely, the ability to shape the outcome of events without being assertive or seeming to intervene at all.
To begin, let me express what a happy and joyous occasion this is. We have come together to honor Bob Stern, not just as an economist but as a friend. In many of the festschrifts I have attended, exclusive attention is devoted to the professional accomplishments of the person being honored. The reason is, I think, because many of the individuals who have gained fame in their professional fields are often not the most admirable individuals at the personal level. Gaining fame is not an easy task and many individuals who succeed are rather self-centered in the sense of letting others know frequently how important and original their own writing are in winning the race to fame.
With Bob we have a completely different picture. Here is a person who has gained fame as an economist and at the same time is warmly admired as a person. I remember that Leontief always felt that one of the highest forms of praise he could give anyone was to say that he was a "straight shooter." To my mind, this description fits Bob very well. When Bob tells you what he thinks about some idea or some person, you know that is what he is telling everyone. He doesn't play games in order to make a point or to put someone down. Nor does he try to elicit some remark about how great a scholar he is. You also know that your friendship with Bob is not something he is going to use for some self-serving purpose or just as a way of meeting other people who can be beneficial to his career. It is a friendship you can count on for life and one that is going to continue to be deeply rewarding at both a personal and professional level.
Now let me turn to Bob's academic accomplishments. I knew Bob had written a large number of articles but I didn't realize just how many until I got a copy of his vitae. He has averaged over three articles a year for the last 36 years. When you add in the substantial number of books he has written, is there any wonder that he is the father of only 2 children, rather than 4, as I am? The guy was too busy writing papers and books. And, of course, his articles are in the top professional journals.
Frankly, I did not realize until I looked over his vita carefully that most of his articles in the first 5 or 6 years after he got his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1958 dealt with agricultural products. How did a city boy from Boston get interested in farm and commodity issues? For example, his first article was entitled "Changes in the Structure of World Food Exports" and the second "The Price Responsiveness of Egyptian Cotton Producers." He has two papers on Malayan rubber production and another on cocoa supply in West Africa in these early years. Now maybe he wrote on these topics because he wanted to travel abroad and undertake research in these exotic places. I don't know, but frankly I have always thought of Bob, at least in his early years, as the kind of guy whose idea of a really exciting journey was going down to Cape Cod for a couple of weeks.
I suppose his interest in commodities was due to the influence of Ragnar Nurske, with whom he studied at Columbia. However, another theory that might account for his early interest in agriculture goods is that I understand his family was in the food business and they wanted him to enter the business too. Maybe his interest in commodities while getting an MBA from Chicago in 1952 and his writing about commodities early on in his career as an economist are tied up in some complex Freudian way with his childhood connections and with his rejection of the food business as a career. But I think we can let professionals like Lucetta figure out if there is anything to that hypothesis.
In any event, we also see in those early years examples of articles on topics that we have come to expect from Bob over the years. He wrote his first papers on the elasticity of import demand as well as on the elasticity of substitution in 1962. He has written on both of these subjects periodically over his career. For example, he addressed both of these topics in the 1970 book with Ed Leamer, called Quantitative International Economics. We all are still greatly indebted to him his survey of import and export demand elasticities that he published with Francis and Schumacher in 1976. He revisited the elasticities of substitution topic in 1989.
A more important topic that he started writing about early and has pursued ever since concerns empirical test of such trade theories as the Ricardian and Heckscher-Ohlin models. His first paper dealing with the Ricardian model was in 1962, and he seemed to become interested in testing the Heckscher-Ohlin model after writing that brilliant article entitled "Testing Trade Theories," which appeared in 1975. Other topics on which he began to write in the early 1960s deal with various trade policies and institutions and with macroeconomic issues relevant for an open economy. His 1973 book, The Balance of Payments: Theory and Economic Policy, is a classic.
But it seems to me that the important point about Bob's research is not so much the particular topics on which he has written but the general approach that he has taken. From the beginning, Bob got it right. Some how he realized that the period in which his career would take place was the age of empirical economics. I don't know just what the status of the computer was at the time he began his career, but he started right out by testing various hypotheses empirically. It is apparent that he appreciated early on the important of applying sophisticated statistical techniques to gain important empirical insights. This appreciation of the importance of applying sophisticated econometrics and utilizing the new computer technology to analyze important empirical and public policy issues is what, in my mind, uniquely characterizes his career.
Further, he has passed this approach on to his students. Empirical work in trade is widely followed today but let me point out that in the 1960s and 1970s it was not. In their book on quantitative international economics, Bob Stern and Ed Leamer were way ahead of the rest of us in appreciating what was unique about research in the modern era. Theory is still important, but I am convinced that historians will look back and characterize this period as one in which empirical economics came of age and began to dominate the discipline.
A major accomplishment of Bob's research career has been the Michigan computable general equilibrium (CGE) model, which he developed along with Alan Deardorff. This is easily the most important CGE model with international economics and has had tremendous influence, not only in academic economics, but also in the policymaking field. For every major international economic policy in recent years, ranging from the Tokyo Round to the Uruguay Round and the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement to NAFTA, this model has been very important in influencing what economists and policymakers think about the economic impact of the policy.
One additional benefit from the model is that it has encouraged its developers to think even more deeply about trade policies and the various institutions dealing with these policies. In my view, Stern and Deardorff have gone beyond being outstanding empirical economists and are now also wise in the ways of trade policy in a real-world setting.
Now let me move away from Bob's accomplishments through his writing and discuss another important feature of his career, namely, his ability to attract an extraordinarily talented group of graduate students. He has done this consistently over the last 30 years. One can look at the students of other trade economists, not just contemporary ones, but leading trade economists over the years, to realize how extraordinary his accomplishment is. Think of people like Taussig, Ohlin, Haberler, and Viner. They really had only a comparatively small number of top-notch students who became academics in the trade field. Other trade economists in the same age group as Bob also have not been nearly as successful as he has. For example, think of Harry Johnson, Max Kreinin, T.N. Srinavansan, Dick Cooper, Ron Jones, Anne Krueger or myself. I suppose the person who comes the closest that I think of is Jagdish Bhagwati, but I don't think his list matches the Stern list, especially when you consider students of students.
I have always been rather envious of Bob on this point. Dave Richardson and I have had a number of good students who have gone on to distinguished academic careers but nothing like Bob has had. My claim to fame in terms of producing other economists has been achieved to old fashioned way, namely, by procreating and arranging marriages. But one is strictly limited in the number of economists one can produce via this route.
I began to think about just how Bob might have achieved this remarkable feat. The most obvious explanation is that Bob teaches a very clear and interesting graduate trade course and thereby attracts many of the most talented individuals in any class of graduate students to take the course and become hooked on trade as a field of specialization. I am sure that when Bob does teach the graduate trade course, it is clear and interesting. The difficulty with this explanation is that he no longer teaches this course but focuses on the public affairs students. I next thought that maybe he gets these good students because he is so kind and considerate to them and they become attached to him and the field. He does have a kind of friendly, grandfatherly quality. Perhaps he invites them over to the house often and serves up one of his nice buffets and lets Lucetta talk to them and ease their personal problems. Well, maybe this is the case, but I rather doubt it.
Still another hypothesis I thought about is that perhaps he charms them with his unique personality. One knows of the great charm and personal magnetism of individuals like Max Corden and Jagdish Bhagwati. When Max takes you for one of his famous walks where he displays not only his brilliance but deep interest in your research, it is easy to see how students are attracted to such personalities. Well, perhaps this is the case, but let's admit it: very few of us have the charisma of a Max Corden or Jagdish Bhagwati.
So what is the secret of his success in attracting top-notch graduate students? Well, after talking to several of them, I think I've figured it out. Bob has followed what I would call the big-time football model in building up his teams of outstanding graduate students--a model he must have become familiar with over his many years here at Michigan. How has Michigan managed to build up and maintain consistently an outstanding football team? The first point to make is that its coaches don't get their players just by waiting for them to walk in and express interest in playing. The coaches go out and recruit their players. And that is what Bob seems to do. He identifies the top graduate students, not just those who have wandered into trade but those in other fields (Ed Leamer was recruited from econometrics) and goes after them to write theses in the trade area.
But how is successful recruitment done? Well, first of all you've got to have some scholarships to attract your recruits. And this is where the Stern-Deardorff research organization comes into play. These two guys have used Bob's MBA knowledge to put together a highly efficient, smooth research operation that must be the envy of many private research firms. They put out first-rate research proposals involving funding for graduate students that seem to be better than the rest of us can do. I know this from personal experience in competing against them for research funds. And they have found places to tap for research funds that I have never heard of. Thus, they always seem to have the funds to offer research assistantships to the top graduate students that they go after.
But, successful recruiting is much more than just having attractive scholarships. A key question in the mind of a recruit is whether the particular team he joins will be useful in helping him get into the pros after he or she completes his or her college career. And Bob is especially helpful on this point. First, while they are on the team, he makes sure that their names get around to the pros. Part of the funds he raises are used for the series of working papers that come out of the Workshop on International Economics. So a graduate student knows that is he gives a good paper in the workshop, it will appear in this series and be sent around to all the major academics and nonacademics in the trade field. It makes it much easier to get a job afterwards. Secondly, a prospective recruit sees that Bob often write papers jointly with his students so they can rely on his name to help them get published early on after they leave. Third, Bob also uses the funds he raises to hold a large number of conferences for which he is able to attract the top trade people. He invites his former students to give papers at these conferences so they get further exposure. Bob now even has his own book series at the University of Michigan Press, so a good recruit realizes he has a possible book publishing outlet if he joins the Stern-Deardorff (and now Jim Levinsohn) team. (Fortunately, he allows some of his friends to use this publication channel.) I have always been surprised that Bob did not start his own journal and give his students still another outlet to get to the big time.
So is it any wonder that Bob has been so successful in attracting outstanding graduate students? He has built a big-time research organization that not only recruits but ensures that members of the team get the best opportunity to make the top professional ranks after they leave. None of the rest of us has come close to operating such an organization as the Michigan research machine.
So I hope I have reminded you of some of the many ways in which Bob Stern is an extraordinary individual. I have not had time to talk about a number of his other special talents, such as his administrative ability, his unflappability, or his ability to persuade you to present a paper at one of his conferences, even though you are already overcommitted. It is a pleasure to honor such an individual, and I know I speak for all present here tonight when I say how wonderful it is to know Bob and to wish him and Lucetta continued success and happiness in the rest of their professional careers and personal lives.