Robert E. Lucas Jr., a contrarian Nobel laureate in economics who undergirded conservative arguments that government intervention in fiscal policy is often self-defeating, died on Monday in Chicago. He was 85.
His death was announced by the University of Chicago, where he began teaching as a professor in 1975 and remained a professor emeritus until his death. The announcement did not cite a cause.
In awarding the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1995 to Professor Lucas, the fifth winner in economics from the University of Chicago in six years, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences described him as “the economist who has had the greatest influence on macroeconomic research since 1970.”
While he propounded a number of groundbreaking if sometimes controversial theories, Professor Lucas was best known for his hypothesis of “rational expectations,” advanced in the early 1970s in a critique of macroeconomics.
In that critique, he challenged John Maynard Keynes’s long-established doctrine that government could manipulate the economy to achieve certain outcomes through reflexive interventionist policies, such as changing interest rates or taking other steps to increase or curb inflation or reduce unemployment.
In the real world, Professor Lucas maintained, consumers and businesses make their decisions on the basis of rational expectations drawn from their own past experiences.
“His idea was that macroeconomic models grounded in lots of equations are based primarily on past behavior,” said David R. Henderson, a research fellow with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in California and an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “But if people learn from what government does” and respond accordingly in their own self-interest, “those models will poorly predict future behavior.”
As a result, Professor Lucas said, government economic policies can be self-defeating by failing to achieve their intended outcomes.
As the economics columnist Leonard Silk wrote in The New York Times in 1983, “If people understand and anticipate what government is doing — for instance, in trying to accelerate economic growth by speeding up the increase in the money supply — workers will increase their wage demands and businesses will raise prices, to protect themselves against future inflation, thus negating the government’s intention of increasing real growth.”
In an agenda with conservative implications for economic policy, Professor Lucas maintained that government spending that supplants private investment is counterproductive; that the money supply is what matters most; and that policies to reduce inequality by redistributing income, though “seductive,” are “in my opinion the most poisonous” to sound economics.
He also favored eliminating taxes on capital gains, or on any income derived from capital. And he embraced supply-side economics, which calls for increasing the supply of goods and services while cutting taxes to promote job creation, business expansion and entrepreneurial activity.
“The supply-side economists,” he said in a 1993 interview, “have delivered the largest genuinely free lunch that I have seen in 25 years of this business, and I believe we would be a better society if we followed their advice.”
In 1995, not long after eight years under President Ronald Reagan, a champion of supply-side, and four under another Republican, George H.W. Bush, Professor Lucas concluded that “the U.S. economy is in excellent shape,” in part because “the government is not trying to do things with economic policy that it isn’t capable of doing.”
And, he said, the same principles that encouraged economic growth in rich countries could be applied to economic development in poorer ones.
In a 1988 lecture titled “What Economists Do,” Professor Lucas explained: “We economists have to be storytellers. We do not find that the realm of imagination and ideas is an alternative to, or a retreat from, practical reality. On the contrary, it is the only way we have found to think seriously about reality.”
Robert Emerson Lucas Jr. was born in Yakima, Wash., on Sept. 15, 1937. His mother, Jane (Templeton) Lucas, was a fashion artist. His father ran an ice-cream parlor that went broke during the Depression, after which the family moved to Seattle, where Robert Sr. became a steamfitter in the shipyards and then, after World War II, a welder in a commercial refrigerator company. Years later, though lacking a college degree or any training in engineering, he rose to become the company’s president.
Before his father’s fortunes changed, however, Robert Jr., hoping to become an engineer, needed a scholarship to attend college and was offered one by the University of Chicago, though it didn’t have an engineering school. Lacking the nerve to study physics, he said, he became a history major. He graduated in 1959.
He then enrolled in a graduate program in economics at the University of California, Berkeley. But, again needing financial support, he returned to the University of Chicago, where he studied under the conservative economist Milton Friedman, who would receive the Nobel in economics in 1976. Professor Lucas earned his doctorate in economics in 1964.
He taught at what is now Carnegie Mellon University from 1963 to 1974, then returned to the University of Chicago as a professor in 1975.
In 1959 he married Rita Cohen, a fellow student at Chicago. They separated in 1982 and divorced several years later. Among his survivors are their sons, Stephen and Joseph; his partner, Prof. Nancy L. Stokey, with whom he collaborated on some of his research at the University of Chicago; a sister, Jenepher Spurr; a brother, Peter; and five grandchildren.
Six years before Professor Lucas won his Nobel, his estranged wife expressed great faith in his future. Her lawyer inserted a clause in their divorce agreement stipulating that she would receive half of any Nobel money he might receive if the honor was awarded before Oct. 31, 1995. He received the prize barely three weeks before that deadline.
Professor Lucas was philosophical about collecting $300,000 instead of the full $600,000. He might have balked during the divorce negotiations, he said, if he had had a greater rational expectation that he would become a Nobel laureate.
“A deal is a deal,” he said at the time. “She got the whole house. Getting half of the prize was better than nothing.”