Trade, development and political economy: The life and work of Ronald Findlay, 1935-2021

From a VoxEU post by Douglas Irwin:

Ronald Findlay, who passed away in October 2021, was one of the great trade theorists of his generation. As this column by one of his former students explains, he will be remembered for his brilliant intellect, his encyclopaedic knowledge of theory and history, and most of all for his modesty, warmth and supportive friendship.

Ronald Findlay, one of the great trade theorists of his generation, passed away in October 2021 at the age of 86. A professor of economics at Columbia University from 1969 to 2013, he anchored the international economics group there for more than four decades. He will be remembered by colleagues and students for his brilliant intellect, his encyclopaedic knowledge of theory and history, and most of all for his modesty, warmth and supportive friendship. 

Findlay was born and raised in Burma but was forced to flee the country on foot during the Second World War.1 After the war, he returned and later received an excellent education at the University of Rangoon. A precocious student, Findlay was appointed as a teaching tutor at the age of 19, and he was giving economic advice to the Burmese government in his very early 20s.2

In 1957, Findlay went to graduate school at MIT where Robert Solow was his dissertation adviser. He was also deeply influenced by Charles Kindleberger and “the master” Paul Samuelson. As a graduate student, Findlay published several papers, including his 1959 classic with Harry Grubert, “Factor Intensities, Technological Progress, and the Terms of Trade”. This paper examined the impact of Hicks-neutral and factor-biased technological change on production and factor allocation in a simple two-good, two-factor model. This influential analysis illuminated some important features of that workhorse model, and it continued to be influential when the issue of factor-biased technical change returned to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Findlay completed his PhD in just three years and returned to Burma to teach at Rangoon.3 One early paper stepped into the minefield of the Cambridge versus Cambridge capital theory and sought to formalise Joan Robinson’s model of accumulation, something that had to be done “due to the obscurity of Mrs. Robinson’s literary presentation of what are fairly intricate quantitative relationships” (Findlay 1963). The paper not only elicited a reply from the formidable Cambridge economist, she even made a special trip to Burma (detouring from India) just to “have it out with this young Findlay guy”, as he later put it. 

This paper and other early work displayed what was a trademark Findlay approach: to provide a formal model of what was implicit in the non-mathematical writings of economists such as Arthur Lewis and Ragnar Nurkse. The goal was to provide a check on the underlying logical structure of non-traditional approaches and see under what conditions the claims for them might hold. For example, Findlay (1959) showed that a policy of “balanced growth”, as advocated by Lewis and Nurkse, would not solve the problem of increasing the returns to investment and could be counterproductive compared with international specialisation along lines of comparative advantage. 

Continue reading here.

Posted by at 6:05 AM

Labels: Profiles of Economists


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