Remembering Julio Rotemberg

June 6th, 2018

Thank you very much to the organizers of this symposium for giving us all an opportunity to remember Julio Rotemberg and his many contributions and for giving me an opportunity to speak about a close friend who for me embodied the best in a scholarly life.  I cherished our friendship and so admired his example.

Start with this.  I knew Julio for a long time.  We met when he came to MIT as an assistant professor in 1980.  When his children were small, and I didn’t yet have children, I spent much time with him Annalise, Veronica and Martin.  With periods of more and less intensity Julio and I maintained our friendship for nearly 40 years.

In all that time, I never heard him say a petty or an envious or a nasty thing.  To be sure, he said things with which I disagreed but I never heard him gossip nastily, run down the work of another scholar, claim that he was being denied deserved credit for some contribution, suggest that someone was overrated or otherwise traffic in what is too often a large part of informal interaction among economists.  I suppose he must have had his ambitions but the only ones that I ever saw were to say things that were new and interesting and helped us understand the world better.

Another thing that stands out for me when I think about Julio was the generosity and capaciousness of his intellectual spirit.  He was not always right.  I am not sure that seeking to rehabilitate Latin American populism was a great impulse.  But there was no idea that he would not entertain, no hypothesis he would not consider, and no subject he would not address.  Over the years we discussed everything from the right maturity structure for US Treasury debt to how Harvard could procure more efficiently, from how committees could best make decisions to what history of thought economics graduate students should learn, from the physics of pumping a swing to the merits of dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models.

Julio gave me a great gift. If I thought a subject was interesting or I wanted to understand it better, that was enough.  He would turn his mind to the issue.  He would help me articulate the impulse that I had and then note the good reasons it was unlikely to be shared.  He was always smiling.  And one other thing stood out for me.  I have had my ups and downs over the years.  It did not affect one bit how Julio related to me.

Julio spent the last two decades of his life at the Harvard Business School.  He loved it and no aspect more than the case method.  I remember when I first became Harvard President, Julio invited me to participate in a class on Business and Government in the International Economy—the course he taught for many years.  The case under discussion addressed capital controls that Malaysia had imposed in the summer of 1998.  It had been written by Laura Alfaro who was then an assistant professor and referred to events I had been very involved in during my time at the Treasury.

I was outraged by the case.  From my perspective, the capital controls had enabled unjust imprisonment and beating of a Malaysian finance minister who had been my friend.  The controls who were imposed the day before my friend was fired and jailed so that his imprisonment couldn’t lead to capital outflows and economic instability.  It seemed to me that this was an unjust totalitarian act that should not be dignified by academic debate.

Julio responded in two ways.  First, with uncharacteristic sternness he said to me: “Larry, you can yell me at me as much as loud and as long as you want.  But Laura is an assistant professor without tenure here and you are President of the University so you are not going to attack her work.”  He then continued:  “You have just the reaction I hoped you would have.  The Malaysians think the case is way unfair to their perspective.  If both sides are mad, that means we wrote a great case.”

He was right on both counts.

His devotion to his teaching was never as clear as in the last weeks of his life. He knew his remaining time was short and there was nothing he wanted to do more than to spend time with his family, and to write one last case and teach one last course.  Thanks to Rafael Di Tella, he was able to teach a that last course.  And he finished the case—attacking my views on the need for more infrastructure investment in the US.  I learned from what he wrote, even if I was not totally persuaded.  And I so admired the way even when in obvious pain, he pushed me to articulate my argument as clearly as possible so he could refute it in its best version.

Julio was a wonderful scholar.  But he was an even better husband, father and friend.  I have so many fond memories of time with Julio and Annalise.  In the early years, my wife and I used to go skiing with the Julio and Annalise.  That does not exactly capture it.  More accurate would be to say we purchased lift tickets at the same resort.  We would then “ski together” which meant we would identify a run to be traversed.  Julio and Annalise would cover the ground three times on the steepest descent while I would struggle down the long crisscrossing horizontal way.  Julio was never impatient or frustrated just mildly amused.

Then there was hiking where I lived in terror at the slopes he would get me on.  I used to remind him that I hiked with my legs not with my hands and that if a trail required the use of hands, it was not for me.  He would always agree and then choose a trail that was just hard enough that I have two moments of terror and cursing on the way up and down and then a real sense of satisfaction afterwards.

And he was so devoted to his children.  I remember his saying to me a couple of years ago.  “Martin has six great ideas.  It would be so great if he could finish and write up at least one of them.  But I can’t say that to him.  Can you?”  I was happy to try to help.

Julio Rotemberg was as good a man as I have known.  I will always miss my friend, even as I am sustained by his memory.