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Michael Mussa (1944–2012): Integrity, Courage, and a Gift for Friendship

by | January 27th, 2012 | 04:22 pm
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I have been a close friend of Michael Mussa for over twenty years. When Mike joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as Economic Counselor and Director of Research in 1991, I was his deputy. When I left the Fund in 1994, he and I stayed in frequent contact, including socially. And when Mike left the Fund in 2001, I helped persuade him to join me as Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, where he worked for the last ten years of his career. During the past two decades, I spent more time working with and just hanging out with Mike than probably anybody else.

Mike was a “character” in the best sense of the word. To me, four things stood out. First, there was the soaring intellect. Mike used that horsepower to very good effect to analyze key issues in economics—be they theory or policy. Mike was clearly one of most talented international economists of his generation. No matter what your political persuasion or intellectual orientation, you could not be involved seriously in international economics over the past forty years without being aware of, and learning something from, what Mike wrote and said. Whether it was what determined the fundamental behavior of exchange rates and the balance of payments, or the properties of different currency regimes, or evaluating the performance of the Federal Reserve, or projecting what the recovery from the global economic and financial crisis of 2007–09 would look like, or what an emerging economy in crisis needed to do to exit from the crisis, nobody was better at cutting to the core of the problem and at dispensing sensible advice. As Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, put it in a recent tribute: “… he will be remembered for his contribution to economics as a rigorous discipline and to policymaking as an exercise in applying rigorous thought to the problems of the day.” I do not mean to suggest, of course, that Mike’s insights were restricted to economics. As many of you will know, Mike also had a commanding knowledge of history, politics, and mathematics—to say nothing of his true passion, namely, wine.

A second hallmark of Mike’s character was his integrity and courage. In short, Mike simply would not allow himself to be intimidated by anyone. He would say what he thought—whether the counterparty was a first-year graduate student, a Nobel laureate, the IMF Executive Board, the Peterson staff at Friday lunch meetings, more than one hundred of the world’s most senior economic officials attending the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole annual symposium, or the President of the United States. Mike was fond of quoting Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that everyone was entitled to their own opinion—but not to their own facts. When Mike thought that the truth was being assailed by nonsense, he would invariably stand up and set the record straight. This characteristic did not endear Mike to everyone, but over time he developed a reputation for being a straight shooter that only increased the demand for his services. Mike was a good businessman and he made a good business of “telling like it is” to economic policymakers all over the world.

Defining characteristic number three was Mike’s terrific sense of humor—something he employed not only to entertain his friends but also to help communicate his economic policy messages. By now, you have probably seen some of Mike’s more famous quips in the obituaries that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, in the New York Times, and in the Washington Post. Just to convey the flavor, I mention here a few of my personal favorites. On watching teams of officials preparing to intervene in a crisis: “Some of them seem more excited than a personal injury lawyer at a six-car crackup.” On the “catch and release” policy of fishing guides: “This has nothing to do with conservation: The guides simply realize that if there are no fish, there is no demand for fishing guides.” On standing up for yourself: “If you don’t want to be known as a doormat, don’t let people walk all over you.” On policymaking in the nation’s capital: “In Washington DC, truth is just another special interest—and not a particularly well-financed one.” On the charge during Congressional testimony that he was a hired gun: “At least I hit what I aim at.” And on the relationship between regulators and the banks they regulate: “The time has long since passed for public officials and central bankers to stop kissing and start kicking the posteriors of bankers whose self-interest diverges substantially from the public interest.” Some of my fondest memories of Mike are of the two of us sitting in my office or his telling stories, jokes, and gossip until—on our best days —we were laughing so hard that tears were streaming down both our faces. When I retired from the Fund after 25 years of service, I offered the view that nobody was more fun to work with than Mike; ten years of working together at Peterson only reinforced that view.

Last but not least, I want to pay testimony to Mike’s kindness and loyalty. Once you were a good friend of Mike’s, he was there to support you whenever you needed it—whether that meant writing letters of recommendation, arguing on your behalf to whomever, offering you suggestions for making your latest paper much better, trying to cheer you up on the phone, or holding a dinner party to help you celebrate one of your personal milestones. When my wife died suddenly and unexpectedly five and a half years ago after 36 years of marriage, Mike was there for me—everything from letting colleagues know about funeral arrangements, to driving out to my house frequently to see how I was doing. When his long-time administrative officer at the Fund had a serious operation after she and he had left the Fund, Mike kept on the case until he was sure she was out of danger. I know that Mike has likewise helped his brother, Roger, through some of his most difficult challenges. There are more than a few international economists who are where they are today professionally in part because of Mike’s mentorship and support. I would estimate that more than 90 percent of the great dinner parties that Mike had at his Watergate apartment—serving the best wines in the world—were not for government bigwigs, but rather for Mike’s friends.

With Michael Mussa’s passing, the world has indeed lost one of its finest international economists. Yet what seems even more painful today is that some of us have lost a truly wonderful friend.

This is a revised version of the eulogy for Michael Mussa delivered by the author on January. 25, 2012, in Los Angeles.

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