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Mike Mussa (1944–2012): A Kind Heart and a Razor Sharp Mind

by | January 20th, 2012 | 03:25 pm
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I had known Mike from professional meetings for a long time, but I really only got to know him well when we both joined the Peterson Institute(or IIE as it was then). As the Institute moved into the new building, Mike and I were two members of the “aging macro group” that lined the back wall of the second floor, along with Ted Truman and Morris Goldstein, a group I was proud to be part of. Mike surprised me as I got to know him. He had been at the University of Chicago for many years and a member of the Reagan Council of Economic Advisers, and I expected him to follow a conservative orthodoxy of monetarism. He was certainly conservative on many issues, but his real allegiance was to the truth, and I found him to be a wonderful guide and thought partner on a whole range of issues in economics and beyond. For a number of years we ran the Peterson forecasting sessions [Global Economic Prospects] together, with him providing the outlook on the global economy and me the US forecast. It was a lot of fun to do even if I often felt jealous of his brilliant insights and clever one-liners. Mike did not suffer fools gladly—fools were defined as people who said things he disagreed with—and his sharp wit was a tool to make his point. Mike Mussa would be high on the list of economists from whom I have learned the most, and I am very grateful for that.

Beneath that exterior of wit and porcupine quills, Mike had a very kind heart. In keeping with his conservatism, he was not always moved by the plight of the disadvantaged as a social group, believing in individual responsibility, and he was skeptical of do-good social policies. At the same time, there was no disguising his empathy for his friends and colleagues. He cared for other people and he was fair. He would heap withering scorn on the economic arguments of a colleague or visiting speaker in a seminar, but he would go out of his way later to comment on the good work that person had done. Mike is justly renowned as a chef and wine lover and I treasure the memory of tasting the fruits of his cooking and his cellar at his beautiful Watergate apartment. He had health problems for a number of years, but I never heard him complain about them or seem unduly depressed by them. He enjoyed his life and I will miss him.

The author is senior fellow in economic studies and holds the Bernard L. Schwartz Chair in Economic Policy Development at the Brookings Institution. He was a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute from 2001–2007 and served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton (1999–2001).

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