Remembering Robert Solow

Legendary MIT economist and Nobel laureate Solow was not just an exemplary scholar; first and foremost, he was an exemplary human being

By Kaushik Basu

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Robert Solow, winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Economics. — AFP file
Robert Solow, winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Economics. — AFP file

Published: Tue 16 Jan 2024, 8:52 PM

The recent passing of legendary MIT economist and Nobel laureate Robert Solow at the age of 99 has triggered a wave of tributes honouring his pioneering research, which deepened our understanding of the relationship between investment, technology, and economic growth. His monumental contributions to the field are widely acknowledged, but for me his passing creates a profound and unexpected sense of personal loss.

During the 2001-02 academic year, I was a visiting professor at MIT, where I taught microeconomics and was expected to give a few other lectures. Olivier Blanchard, then-chair of the economics department, explained that due to limited space, I would have to share a cluster of three offices, the other occupants being Solow and Paul Samuelson. Although the thought of being in a cluster with two Nobel laureates was somewhat discomfiting, my trepidation was unwarranted; my neighbors turned out to be lovely people. I got to know both Samuelson (who died in 2009), and Solow well during that academic year.

By then, Solow had established himself as a towering figure, renowned for his extensive contributions to the field, particularly his groundbreaking research on the drivers of economic growth. Over his illustrious career, he received every major economics award, culminating in the Nobel in 1987.

Solow’s work has had a profound impact on global policymaking, especially on East Asia’s so-called “tiger” economies during their take-off. As the Nobel Committee noted, Solow’s growth model, which he developed in the 1950s, illustrated how “continuous technological progress” could increase economic output, encouraging governments around the world to invest in research and development.

Unlike many other economists of his generation, Solow did not begin his academic journey in mathematics, physics, or economics. Instead, he initially studied anthropology and sociology, with Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons as his mentor. Interestingly, Parsons himself had made the opposite decision, starting his career in economics before moving to sociology. Solow’s studies were interrupted when, at the age of 18, he joined the United States Army, serving in North Africa and Sicily until the end of World War II in 1945.

Upon returning to Harvard, Solow studied under the famous Russian economist (and future Nobel laureate) Wassily Leontief. He also married Barbara Lewis, beginning a lifelong partnership that lasted until her death in 2014.

While Solow was already a seminal figure by the time I met him, it was his extraordinary character that struck me the most. What truly set him apart was not just his modesty but his total lack of pretense, and his natural human warmth.

During our first meeting, Solow asked about the Indian students he had supervised at MIT, wondering if I was familiar with any of them. Remarkably, his interest was not limited to those who had achieved professional success. He was equally interested in those who, though brilliant, had not reached their full potential due to personal circumstances or misfortune, asking thoughtful questions about their lives and families. During the year, my wife and I developed a friendship with Bob and Barbara, inviting them to our home for dinner and meeting them at various Cambridge establishments to talk about economics, sociology, and life.

Solow was a person of remarkable integrity. The model of economic growth he is most known for, the Solow-Swan model, is a case in point. While Solow first published his model in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1956, a similar model was developed independently by the Australian economist Trevor Swan, who published his work in the lesser-known Economic Record that same year.

Swan, being an economist from a less renowned institution, did not receive the same recognition as Solow for his contributions. I was deeply impressed by Solow’s consistent acknowledgment of Swan’s work on the many occasions when we discussed his groundbreaking research.

One of my last interactions with Solow occurred shortly after I became the Chief Economic Adviser to the Indian government. During my first few months in the role, as I struggled to deal with politicians and business leaders, I found myself longing for the intellectual environment of academia. While corresponding with Solow on some policy issues, I told him that I was not enjoying my current job and that I missed the world of research and writing. In his typically avuncular manner, he responded with a handwritten letter, emphasizing the importance of effective policymaking and urging me to dig in my heels and do my best, despite the personal sacrifices this might involve.

Solow was speaking from personal experience, having been a member of US President John F. Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1961 to 1962. He was right: over time, I grew to enjoy my policymaking work, particularly my discussions with then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on some of the minutiae of policy design. I am deeply grateful to Solow for offering much-needed encouragement when I needed it most and for his enduring friendship. He was not just an exemplary scholar; first and foremost, he was an exemplary human being. — Project Syndicate

Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of the World Bank and chief economic adviser to the Government of India, is Professor of Economics at Cornell University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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