Friday, December 18, 2009

Remembrance for Arthur Goldberger

Within the last week, we have lost the greatest economic theorist of the past 70 years Paul Samuelson. Samuelson was justly famous as the first American winner of the economics Nobel (and many, many other things). Every major newspaper ran large obituaries, as they should have. But just two days earlier, we lost one of economics’ greatest empiricists, Arthur S. Goldberger. Strangely, despite Goldberger’s huge influence on generations of economists and other social scientists, his passing has gone largely unnoticed outside of his friends and family, and fellow empiricists.

One of the privileges of my time in Madison has been to know Art Goldberger--I can't claim to have known him well, but to know him at all was my pleasure.

Our paths first crossed when I met him during my first week in Madison at the urging of my friend and World Bank colleague Kyu Sik Lee, who was his former student. Another of Art's students and a colleague of mine, Richard Green also often spoke of his econometrics teacher, I would say with awe. Most of my brief meetings with Art after that were at economics seminars of various kinds, where I noticed he didn't say a lot, but what he said was always on the mark.
In later years I knew him in a different way, because in retirement he met daily with an informal kaffeeklatsch with my next door neighbor who was a little surprised to learn that I and many other empiricists thought Goldberger deserved the economics Nobel as much as anyone who's ever received it (and more than some!). I put that down to a bias away from empirics, but then I would.

The paper of Art's that I most use and cite is a little gem called "Interpretation and Estimation of Cobb-Douglas Production Functions" (Econometrica 1968) which highlights his ability to find really useful insights about a well-known tool all economists use, but haven't thought about as deeply as he had.

He had the ability to see the big picture, too, and knew the literature in a wide range of social sciences, see "Structural equation methods in the social sciences", Econometrica 1972, or either of his two well-known econometric textbooks.

Want to learn how to read social science critically? See his review of "The Bell Curve," Herrnstein and Murray’s controversial commentary on supposed links between race, cognitive ability, and economic success. Art’s review in Journal of Economic Literature, 1995 (with Charles Manski) is a masterpiece.

Something tells me I'll be reading a few papers by Goldberger, and by Samuelson, over the break. There's a lot of great new literature out there, but some of the classics still have much to teach us.

Stephen Malpezzi is the Lorin and Marjorie Tiefenthaler Professor in the Wisconsin School of Business’s Department of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Malpezzi is the Academic Director of UW’s James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate.

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