SYNOPSIS: Paul tells us some of his memories of the life of Rudi Dornbusch

I should write a proper essay about Rudi Dornbusch, about who he was and what he meant to me. I'm not ready to do that yet. What I can do is put down a few random memories of things, more or less in chronological order, that may help others have a sense of who he was.

Rudi's gang

Rudi came to MIT, I think, in 1975. I had already taken international macro from Charles Kindleberger - a fine course, full of wisdom, but one that did not inspire students to enter the field - who feels wise in his early 20s? When Rudi arrived, he brought an intellectual style - a sort of international version of Solow's small-model economics, but with his own sass and attitude - that quickly attracted a cadre of students. For me it opened the door: suddenly international was what I wanted to do.

And Rudi wasn't just an intellectual presence, he was really part of peoples' lives. I remember that he decided that he was tired of being roly-poly (as he then was), and took up jogging - and gathered a group of students (not me) to go on his daily runs. The group included at least one future first-rate economic theorist (Andy Abel), at least one future finance minister (Pedro Aspe), and in general for a while running and international macro became an integrated experience.

The fake Festschrift

I hope that someone has a copy of the fake Festschrift that Rudi's Rochester students made for him. (A Festschrift, for non-academics, is a volume of "essays in honor" given late in a famous professor's career.) It was very funny - one essay further simplified Rudi's famous one-good-and-money model of devaluation to a model in which there were no goods, only money (and if you don't get it, sorry, it's an inside joke), and a tribute to the affection his students had for him.


In 1976 I was Rudi's research assistant on a Brookings Paper on flexible exchange rates. That's really all I was. But Rudi listed me as co-author - an extraordinary act of generosity.


In the summer of 1976 a group of MIT students went to work for the Bank of Portugal. The initial contact came from Dick Eckaus, but the effective leader of our mission - the man who put us in place, though we went on to work alone - was Rudi. I've written about the "children's crusade" in my essay "Incidents from my career", but let me say a bit about Rudi's role.

The first thing I remember is arriving - very jet lagged - and going almost straight into a meeting with the governor. Rudi was also freshly arrived, but was totally focused and sharp. I've never been able to match his ability to travel well, but I did learn from that experience the importance of overcoming your weariness when there's important work to be done.

But what really mattered was what he told us privately afterward. More or less, he told us to stand up for ourselves. The local officials had all the experience and inside information, but they didn't necessarily know what was right any better than we did. Rudi christened one particularly pompous official the Minister of Funny Steps - exactly the kind of mood-lightening thing we needed. Years later Susan Collins and I dubbed another official, in another country, the Minister of Body-building - same principle.

Thesis advice

Rudi was my primary thesis adviser. Like most Ph.D. candidates, I had no idea where to begin, and started to reread all the papers that had been assigned in courses. Rudi gave me terrific advice: Don't reread the literature. Your head is already stuffed full of that material, and you'll end up doing a small twiddle on someone else's model. Instead, he urged me to read about real-world issues - read the Financial Times, the Economist, economic history, get your juices flowing. See what seems to be an interesting issue you think you can use. Wonderful advice, still completely on point.

Increasing returns

In the winter of 1977-78 - I don't know the date, but there had been heavy snowfall and everything was shut down - I visited Rudi in what was then his Beacon Hill house. I was one semester into my assistant professorship at Yale, and at something of a loss. I described various research ideas, and he pointed me to the big one: increasing returns, monopolistic competition, and international trade. And that was the takeoff point for my academic career.

The interesting thing is that this wasn't at all up Rudi's alley. A lesser man might have urged me to work on things that would complement his own research. Instead, he gave me exactly the right advice for my interests, not his.

Types of economists

Rudi was a very funny, colorful speaker of English, with a gift for offbeat but perfect turns of phrase. He had a classification system for economists, depending on their research style. "Goldsmiths" were careful, meticulous workers - which Rudi admired. "Pigs" just sort of jumped into an issue and wallowed around. But that was OK too, if it was done with sufficient vigor and originality. Rudi described Larry Summers as a "fearful pig" - and it was a compliment.

On the other hand, "plumbers" were economists who devised intricate contraptions with no clear purpose. I won't tell you who he described as "dreadful plumbers", but he was right.

Personal generosity

I returned to MIT in 1979, and got onto tenure track in 1980. I think Rudi had a lot to do with that. I wish I could say that we were close in the years that followed; we weren't, really. We got on fine, but I was a bit distant - probably subconsciously guarding my independence.

But one incident of great encouragement remains in my memory. Around 1990-91 I was suffering pretty badly from an exotic form of arthritis, which at first didn't repond to drugs, and was quite downcast. I remember telling Rudi that I just had bad genes. And he said the most wonderful thing: "There's nothing wrong with the genes of someone who can write those papers."

There was nothing wrong with Rudi's genes, either.

Originally published on the Official Paul Krugman Site, 7.28.02