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Remembering Robert E. Lucas Jr.: Architect of modern macroeconomics

May 22, 2023

Robert E. Lucas, Jr.
Kevin Anderson
Remembering Robert E. Lucas Jr.: Architect of modern macroeconomics

We are saddened that professor Robert E. “Bob” Lucas Jr. passed away on Monday, May 15, 2023. Since the early 1970s, the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has had the privilege to establish a close collaboration with Bob that has influenced and transformed generations of economists and policymakers.

Bob was a deep and revolutionary thinker. As our colleague V.V. Chari put it, Bob was the “architect of modern macroeconomics,” introducing a “sea change” in how theory is applied to essential macroeconomic questions. He won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Economics for “having developed and applied the hypothesis of rational expectations, and thereby having transformed macroeconomic analysis and deepened our understanding of economic policy.”

Bob’s work provided new foundations to economic policy analysis, including monetary policy. Considerations about expectations are nowadays central to the policy discussion. The frameworks used by central banks all over the world incorporate the insights of the “Lucas critique.” We were able to honor these revolutionary contributions at a Minneapolis Fed September 2022 conference, Foundations of Monetary Policy, timed with the 50th anniversary of a seminal Lucas paper that cemented the role of rational expectations in macroeconomic research.

At the Minneapolis Fed, Bob was an inspiration, mentor, reviewer, and collaborator for countless economists, past and present. His ideas and friendship were indispensable to a group of pioneering scholars known as the “four horsemen” (Ed Prescott, Tom Sargent, Christopher Sims, and Neil Wallace), who together placed the Minneapolis Fed and University of Minnesota at the forefront of economic thought and earned multiple Nobels themselves. He played a formative role in the careers of many of our current staff economists and consultants, who remember him fondly (see below).

Bob’s innovations in economic theory operated at the highest level, yet he was gifted and devoted to helping his ideas reach a broader audience. These included an interview with the Minneapolis Fed’s then-newspaper—on topics ranging from his critique of Keynesian economics to his prior life as a second baseman—and a perennially popular, accessible article extolling the power of the economic growth: “The potential for improving the lives of poor people by finding different ways of distributing current production,” Bob wrote, “is nothing compared to the apparently limitless potential of increasing production.”

We extend our deepest sympathies to Nancy; his sons, Stephen and Joseph; his sister, Jenepher; his brother, Peter; and his grandchildren. We will immensely miss him as a teacher, as a colleague, and, above all, as a friend.

Remembrances from colleagues

“Bob was my hero from my undergraduate studies. When I had to choose among graduate programs, Andrea Buraschi contacted me and told me ‘Bob Lucas asked me to call you.’ With that, the decision was done.”

“Over the years, I had the privilege to take Bob’s courses, to be his Teaching Assistant, to have him on my thesis committee, and to have him as a lifelong mentor and friend with whom I shared many pleasant occasions. He was a big asset during all the Chicago years of my career, even after I graduated.”

“I was always impressed by the incredible clarity of Bob’s papers. He often dealt with very difficult problems and yet he was able to make them accessible to any decently trained economist. The same clarity shone through our precious conversations, whether they were about my research, his, or somebody else’s.”

—Marco Bassetto, monetary advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

“Bob Lucas forever transformed economics. He was a unique scientist whose ideas and methodological contributions laid the grounds for modern macroeconomics. His presence will be dearly missed, but his legacy will endure and continue to inspire future generations.”

—Javier Bianchi, monetary advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

“All macroeconomists have become orphans. I was privileged enough to be Bob’s student in the late ’80s. His classes were absolutely fascinating. Like most academic economists, I spent over twenty years in school. That means a very large number of teachers. Bob clearly stands out as the best.”

“Bob would start by explaining the topic of the day, and, most importantly, why it was important. Then he would explain and solve the model, go over the derivations, explaining in detail what he was doing and what he was trying to achieve. Then, after very neatly filling a blackboard with equations (the technology was the chalk, and blackboards were actually black), he would perfectly draw a rectangle over some of the equations (3 or 4?) and would erase the others. And that is when the magic started. He would move away from the blackboard and start explaining the economics behind the math, and how looking at the right data showed us how to put clarity into the now only apparent chaos of reality. One’s initial confusion would slowly, following his interpretation, become orderly thoughts. Many times, in classes, I would look at the watch. But in Bob’s classes, the feeling was: I can’t believe there are only 20 minutes left!”

“Once the quarter was over, you looked at the world in a different way. At the same time, a strong nostalgic feeling would invade you: you had to wait till next year to be able to sit in his classes again.”

“I took all the classes Bob taught while I was a graduate student. And I also took his class when privilege knocked on my door again, and I could visit the Department at Chicago in the winter of 2005.”

“After that visit, we became friends and managed to take a few trips together, with Nancy and with Anabella. After a few minutes of marveling about the landscape, he started discussing the ways the old societies that inhabited the place (the Incas in Machu Picchu, the Diaguitas in north-west Argentina or the medieval villagers in deep Catalunya) lived and why. I never stopped learning from him. Bob, the greatest teacher, we will miss you forever.”

—Juan Pablo Nicolini, senior research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

“It is difficult to express the profound impact Robert Lucas had on my generation of economists. Bob possessed a remarkable ability to communicate, crafting numerous clear and elegant papers that revolutionized our approach to economics. Even though I entered the field well after the rational expectations revolution had transformed macroeconomics, I could sense Bob’s influence in nearly every aspect I encountered. And that influence is still there today. I am deeply saddened by his physical absence, but I am also grateful for the multitude of beautiful ideas he entrusted to our care. I will also dearly miss his regular visits to the Bank. It was quite a sight to see him engage with anyone about economics, and while he truly deserved to bask continuously in the spotlight for his contributions, he remained a humble and generous man, perpetually in good spirits. I will always remember how kind he was, particularly towards young economists (myself included, years ago). Thank you Bob.”

—Manuel Amador, monetary advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

“Dear Bob,

“During my first two years at the University of Chicago, I was utterly terrified, exhilarated, and excited in equal measure. Catching up with classes, very much including yours, was an enormous challenge for me. Then, gradually, remedying some of my ignorance and becoming your second year Teaching Assistant, the terror passed and the exhilaration and excitement remained. Those years changed the way I look at the world and the questions that I ask myself. I do not know what my life would have been if I did not go to grad school at the U of C and meet you, but I am infinitely grateful that I did.

“You were a major force in improving my life. To start, in your first year class, you embodied what everyone is talking about regarding your research and the way it revolutionized economics. After that, I started getting to know you not just by listening in class, but also talking with you about your problem sets and economics more generally. I remember the intimidating attention with which you were listening to what I had to say. You really give a gift to someone every time you listen to them like that. You would listen and then get down to the core of the point.

“Over time, you, Nancy, Marco, and I, also started to get together socially, and I also had the privilege to get to know you as a friend. While I have always been intimidated by your intellect and your way at looking at things and coming at the core of the question, I then discovered what a great person you are. Your sometimes lopsided smile, your laugh, the twinkle in your eyes, your happiness. They are contagious and a joy to all of us having the privilege of spending good times with you. You are a deeply warm, kind, and truly respectful person.

“I miss you, but I know that you are still here and everywhere, still intact. Instead of being in just one physical place, you are in all of our minds, still present. Still very much listening and getting to the core of things, still being there for all of us who love you, remember you, and miss you. Always available as an example, an inspiration, and a source of strength and joy. Thank you for being so much to so many of us, Bob.”

—Mariacristina De Nardi, Institute consultant at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis