Saturday, February 18, 2012

Warrenfest: The Best Day of My Life

I'm writing from Atlanta, where I spent yesterday at this conference in honor of Warren Weber, at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Maybe Warren Weber is well-known to you. But if not, it's your loss. If you want to know how important Warren Weber is, look at the people who choose to come to his retirement conference. There are three Nobel prizes held among the conference presenters. If you want to know what a nice guy Warren Weber is, look at the really nice people who come to his conference: Peter Rousseau, Angie Redish, Michael Bordo, Valerie Bencivenga, Gary Gorton, Dean Corbae, Neil Wallace, and the organizer of the affair, Will Roberds (and if I didn't mention you, that doesn't mean you're not nice - you're all nice, particularly the Nobels). If you want to know how broad Warren's interests and activities are, look at the coverage and the serious human capital:

Monetary history: Redish, Bordo, Gorton, Velde
Aggregative Economics (Prescott language): Lucas, Christiano, Prescott, Sargent
Monetary Theory: Wallace, Wright
Central Bankers: Kocherlakota (Minneapolis Fed President), Kei-Mu Yi (Minn. Fed Research Director), Tao Zha (Atlanta Fed), Dennis Lockhart (Atlanta Fed President), Waller (St. Louis Fed Research Director), David Andolfatto (Vice President, St. Louis Fed).

Just being at this conference is a wonderful experience, and very nostalgic. Sargent and Wallace sat together and whispered, trying to sort out the papers. Ed Prescott nodded off briefly, just as he did in the seminar room at the Minneapolis Fed, when I was there 1987-89. My ex-colleague Dean Corbae gave a paper. My coauthor Randy Wright, who I have known essentially since we were on the job market together in 1984 (he from Minnesota, me from Wisconsin), also presented. Valerie Bencivenga, my good friend and the widow (odd to use that word, but there it is) of Bruce Smith, my mentor and good friend. [By the way, Valerie is doing well at UT Austin, and now married to Mark Feldman, an economist and bridge champion, and also former employee of Bear Stearns during the financial crisis - another story in itself]. The sad part of the conference for me was thinking about the people who were not there with us: Bruce Smith, Rao Aiyagari, and Scott Freeman, who all died in their 40s, and Bruce Champ, a monetary historian and Minnesota graduate who is now disabled.

How many times has the happened to you? Most of your very best professional friends, and essentially all of the people who you most admire, first from a distance as a student, and later as colleagues and friends, and most of the people that you learned from as a professional economist, are in the room. It's really a one-time affair. Never going to happen again.

In the evening we had dinner in the Atlanta Fed's dining room. At the end of the dinner, Narayana talked briefly about Warren, then Will threw it open to the floor: open mike to allow us to give our take on Warren's contributions. I knew in advance that I would have an opportunity to talk at some point about things other than my paper on the program. I thought hard about what I wanted to say. I thought about it last week; I thought about it on the plane on the way here and took notes; I thought about it when I went for a run yesterday morning.

As Valerie said, carpe diem. I had several goals in mind. I wanted to right a wrong. I wanted to give people some idea of what it was like to work at the Minneapolis Fed in 1987-89, when I was Warren's colleague - what it was like to be in that environment where so many of the important economic ideas of the 20th century were percolating. I had to do all that, and also try to get across the idea that Warren Weber is an important person in the world, and important to me. Did I do that? You'll have to ask the people in the room. But afterword, Ed Prescott gave me a hug, which made me feel really good.

After dinner, I walked back to the hotel with Bob Lucas, and we talked about Alice Munro. A perfect day, and I sure hope Warren was happy, and felt good about what he gave to the Minneapolis Fed, to the economics profession, and to all of us as a companion and friend.

I have taken on a job, which is to be Chair of the Department of Economics at Washington University in St. Louis, for a five-year stint beginning in July. I'm looking forward to it, and my institutional model is Minneapolis. In the early 1970s, sparked by the ideas of John Kareken, a relationship grew up between the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Fed. That relationship produced four Nobel prizes and some of the key economic ideas of the 20th and 21st centuries. Lesser known people like me and Warren Weber were privileged to be in that environment and to have the opportunity to contribute. If we can do anything close to what was achieved in Minneapolis with Wash U and the St. Louis Fed working together, then I will be a happy man.

Warren's interests and contributions reflect the strength of the Minneapolis model. Warren is an economic historian, a money and banking theorist, a teacher, a dissertation supervisor, a macroeconomist, a central banker, and an all-around first-rate human being. He has accomplished a lot in his professional career. Indeed, we expect a lot more from him. What a pleasure to be here!

Addendum: I got a funny comment that I deleted. For anyone who misunderstood what I was up to when I gave Warren his "roast," or whatever that was, this is something I learned to do when I was at Iowa. Talk to anyone who was there at the time and they will tell you about it. When I want to, I can crank myself up and do what I did on Saturday night. It's purely a piece of acting. I did not know I could do this until I learned it, and it appears to be entirely inconsistent with the Steve character that everyone knows. I can assure you that no substances were involved. As anyone can tell you, I hardly drink at all. What I consume in a year is what some people I know drink in an evening. There is never anything else running around my body, which I take good care of. As for the Neil thing, I stuck my neck out alright. Neil is an old friend, he is under-recognized in the profession, and everyone who knows him understands he deserves a Nobel. Neil is also painfully shy, and would be embarrassed by the real thing too. But, given everyone's age and the nature of the occasion, with everyone there, I just did it. If you don't like it, where were you on Saturday night? Good humor is out there, it skates close to the edge, and some people aren't smart enough to get it. You should know that by now.


  1. I really really enjoyed this post for some reason. And that's quite a list of important economists!

    Are any of the presentations being recorded?

    1. I did not see cameras in there. You could email Will Roberds and ask.

  2. It was quite a gig. I had similar thoughts that it was very unlikely that I will be in that proximity to those three Nobel laureates again. These were the guys that revolutionized macro as we know it.

    You did not mention your awarding Neil Wallace an honorary (and perhaps upcoming) Nobel, it was a nice touch.

    Your monologue was quite something in many respects. No description would do it justice, but let's say it was a no holds barred stream of consciousness reminiscence of various people, events and times.
    You had the Nobels and the audience laughing histerically!

    Warren is a great economist and human being.
    He got a hearty send off!

  3. I was fortunate to be one of his many students in his Monetary theory class. One thing that reminds me about Warren is that he likes monetary history a lot. He also taught us how to make presentation slides in a profession fashion that will be forever useful in the rest of my career.