Ronald Findlay, 1935-2021

Ronald Findlay, who died late last week, was one of the finest trade theorists of his generation. Born in Rangoon in 1935, his first papers appeared in the QJE and Oxford Economic Papers in 1959.  A short note, co-authored with the present writer, was published online by the Journal of Global History earlier this year. Ron’s publication record thus spanned eight successive decades: a remarkable achievement, but not so remarkable to anyone fortunate enough to know the man.

Ron’s graduate classmate, Ronald Jones, is reported to have once said that all economics is either trade or history.[1] While Ron’s career was built on his effortless mastery of trade theory, he had an unparalleled knowledge of and interest in history, based on a lifetime of judicious reading. Indeed, his own life contained more history than is true for most of us. As a seven-year-old Anglo-Burmese boy he saw the first Japanese bombs fall on a post office across the road from where he lived; his family was compelled to flee the country, participating in the great trek out of Burma. Ron remembered one day running ahead of the rest of the group and spotting a British soldier, whose presence meant that they had finally made it to the comparative safety of India. The fugitives having been re-housed, Ron’s new teachers decided to see if he could cope with a well-known textbook of the time. But having mistaken the page number Ron read the copyright notice, rather than anything to do with Dick, Jane, or Spot. “The refugee boy can read”, was the verdict.

His subsequent academic career was predictably brilliant, with a BA from Rangoon University being followed by a PhD at MIT, where Ron studied under Bob Solow. “Solow was the older brother everyone wished they had had”, he once said, “while Samuelson was Zeus”. It was a golden generation on Mount Olympus: I will never forget the evening I spent sitting on a floor in Stockholm listening to the two Ronnies, Findlay and Jones, alongside Bob Mundell, swapping stories about their graduate years.

Ron returned home and taught in Rangoon, where he had the honour of being marched around a lake by Joan Robinson who had flown to Burma expressly to tell him how mistaken he was about capital. But it was probably inevitable that he should end up returning to the United States, where he was the Ragnar Nurske Professor of Economics at Columbia University for many years. Columbia was, and remains, a power-house in international economics, and Ron was central in achieving that.

And Columbia was where I met him as a young and fairly clueless assistant professor in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Like many other young people, no doubt, Ron took me under his wing with great generosity of spirit and kindness. I had decided to make the switch from international economics to economic history, but Ron had as much to teach me about the past as he did about trade and growth theory, and our frequent lunches with Mike Gavin were one of the highlights of my time there. Ron was an unforgettable presence in the seminar room, extemporizing with a piece of chalk and a blackboard. As others have said he was a genius at reducing general equilibrium models to their graphical essences in the most intuitive manner possible.

I will always be grateful to Mike Bordo, Alan Taylor, and Jeff Williamson, who in 1999 had the very good idea of putting together a conference on the history of globalization, insisting that each chapter be written by a two-person team: one an economic historian, the other a “regular economist”. I seized the opportunity to work with Ron, and over the next eight years we wrote first the chapter, and subsequently a book expanding on the theme. It was an intense and hugely enjoyable collaboration, and the eventual publication of the volume, while gratifying, left a void in my day-to-day life.

Ron had the wisdom and knowledge that comes with age, but retained a boyish enthusiasm and impishness that made him a joy to be with: the schoolboy was never very far from the surface. He was one of the most affirming people that I have ever met, and was not only admired and respected, but loved, by his many friends and colleagues. I am so very fortunate to have known him. He was devoted to Jane and the rest of his family, and my thoughts are with them today.

[1] That is to say, either theory or empirics.

2 replies on “Ronald Findlay, 1935-2021”

I was vey sorry to learn this news.

Let me reinforce some of the points made by Kevin : Ron was head of the economics department at Columbia in the mid 1990s and showed a lot of thoughtfulness and kindness in helping new faculty members settle. In seminars, he was a courteous contributor who was able to draw on a deep well of knowledge and excellent intuition.

“Great generosity of spirit and kindness” is right. Such a fine person. I particularly admired his work with Stan Wellisz, a very elegant bridge between Diamond-Little-Mirrlees shadow prices and the standard GE trade model.

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