In Memory of Bob Rossana

Robert “Bob” Rossana died back in February of this year. I was inadvertently left off of the university announcement email and did not hear about it until much later. Bob was my dissertation advisor. He meant a lot to me and so I want to share some thoughts.

In graduate school, there were four macroeconomics courses. Two core classes and two field classes. Bob was instrumental in getting this four-course system started, as well as a “macro lunch,” in which any graduate student interested in macro was required to attend and present.

Many of my fellow classmates found him intimidating. I cannot say for certain why other students felt this way, but I suspect that it was Bob’s high standards. He expected a lot of us, but he was always fair. Above all, he wanted us to push the boundaries of our understanding.

Those of us who chose to write in macro got to know a different side of Bob. Visits to his office involved not only serious discussions about research and economics, more generally, but current events and funny stories. He had a great sense of humor.

He loved to talk about current events and filter them through the lens of economics. During these conversations, he frequently emphasized to me that the ability to think like an economist was a powerful tool and that one should never let economics become inconvenient. What he meant was that one should never use his or her position as an economist to advocate a particular ideological position. Any sort of policy advocacy should be based on a rigorous application of economics.

In these meetings, I also learned that he had the same high standards for what he deemed good research as he did for his students. We had many conversations about what constituted good, serious scholarship. As I have gained my own experience in the field, I have also developed strong opinions about what constitutes good research. I recognize now that a lot of the opinions I have today were shaped by these discussions.

He did not believe in a distinction between theory and applied work. Applied work should be a direct test of a theory. This is reflected in his underappreciated paper that demonstrates how to test hypotheses for a system of equations. He also frequently emphasized that one must be careful about trying to explain the data-generating process when the data are often sensitive to the nature of measurement. This was evident in his own work as well. For example, Long and Plosser had found that most macroeconomic time series followed a similar time series process. This evidence was used early on as support for real business cycle theory. Bob, along with his friend and co-author John Seater, showed that this Long and Plosser result was predicated on the use of annual data. The last paper he was working on (to my knowledge) was a unique test of money neutrality. I don’t see a recent copy online, but hopefully his co-author will see it through to publication. He was a serious scholar. A relatively recent version of his CV is here.

Bob was very business-like as a professor and an advisor. Things were either done well or not. I remember when I presented him with the first complete draft of my dissertation. I naively assumed that a completed draft meant that I was basically done. He called me to his office and listed entire sections of the dissertation that needed to be re-written – most sections, if I’m being honest. I was a bit dejected, but upon reflection, he was more than kind. When I got my first revise and resubmit during my final year of grad school, he congratulated me on my progress, but told me I should’ve sent it to a better journal. (He was probably correct about that as well.)

I had so much respect for him. Even after I had defended my dissertation, I would often address him as “Dr. Rossana.” One day, he sent me a quick email that said “Josh, you need to call me Bob. We are colleagues now.”

It was his business-like nature that made praise all the more meaningful. The last time I saw him in person was when I came back to give a seminar. I was waiting on one last signature for tenure. After my seminar, we sat in his office for a couple of hours. We talked about my job and my all-but-certain tenure case. He asked me about my wife and kids and how they liked Mississippi. When I mentioned the long road trips to visit family, he shared memories of car trips with his sons. Before I left, he said, “I want you to know that we’re proud of you. You’ve done well.” That meant a lot to me. More than he probably realized.

He died in February. Cancer. I never got to say goodbye. Or one last thank you. So I wrote this as that final goodbye and that final thank you. Hopefully it reaches him.

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