CSMGEP Profiles: Lisa D. Cook, Michigan State University

Finding Economics

Lisa D. Cook, Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, and James Madison College, Michigan State University

Lisa D. Cook PortraitIt was atop Mount Kilimanjaro that it dawned on Lisa D. Cook that she should go into economics. Having spent several hours climbing with a Cambridge-trained economist, Cook, who at the time was in Africa to research her potential philosophy dissertation on the concept of time, began to wonder whether she couldn’t better answer her questions with the tools of economics.

Her hiking companion, the economist, she said, “helped me realize that my time in philosophy gave me the rigorous training in logic to ask or hone important questions, and that economics could give me the tools to answer them,” she recalls. “He gave me tons of advice, and laid out what my preparation should be to switch from philosophy to economics,” Cook says. At the end of the climb, he went his way and she went hers, but with her feet back on the ground in the U.S., she applied to and was accepted in the doctoral program in economics at Berkeley.

Her path since Berkeley has led her to Harvard for postdoctoral studies and teaching and a fellowship with the Council on Foreign Relations in the Treasury Department. It was there she worked with the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers, among other senior Treasury officials, investigating the problems of financial crises and heavily indebted countries. 

Later at Stanford in another fellowship, she built on her dissertation (how the lack of property rights in Tsarist and post-Soviet Russia led to underdevelopment of the banking system) to explore the ability of inventors over time, especially African Americans, to patent their intellectual property.  She continues to be interested in economic growth, particularly the relative importance of physical and intellectual property rights and their effect on growth. 

True to her original interest, Cook has created several opportunities to apply the tools of economics on a human scale in helping to unravel some of the most enduring problems of the world. While at Harvard with Jeffrey Sachs, known for his international work on poverty reduction, debt cancellation, and disease control, she advised the government of Rwanda on its first post-genocide International Monetary Fund (IMF) program.

Each day, she said, the Minister of Finance would announce that their goal was to help prevent poverty and other economic factors that contributed to genocide in the first place. “That,” Cook said, “was one of the most rewarding moments in my career.” The Hutus and Tutsis, she said, saw it as a fight for scarce resources. “Rwanda had one of the highest population growth rates in the world, and their idea was that the economic pie was fixed, that what was beneath their feet was it, not that the land could be turned into more productive uses to increase the size of the pie so everyone could get a larger slice. If there’d been more thought about how the country should develop, things might have turned out differently.”

In addition to working with Jeffrey Sachs, she also worked with U2’s Bono to persuade senior White House officials on the merits of debt relief to poor countries.  These opportunities, Cook says, were all high points, not because of the elite company, but because, “It took seriously the policy implications of model-based, measurement-intensive, and sometimes obscure economic research and turned it into tangible, accessible recommendations that could have a huge impact. It also gave me the kind of intuition needed for economic analysis and made me see the power of these tools I had in action.”

When asked about the low point of her career, Cook didn’t miss a beat: “Being on the job market. If there’s any skin-thickening prescription on the market, take as much as possible.”

Her second piece of advice for young minority economists is to pick good mentors. “Sandy Darity, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was an integral part of my preparing for and obtaining my Ph.D.,” Cook says, “just because he would answer my questions frankly about each stage of becoming a productive economist.  Darity also suggested that she enroll in the AEA summer program at Stanford University, “which ultimately provided me with several other senior faculty as mentors and sounding boards. They weren’t all women, or African Americans, but they provided good role models and someone to talk to about graduate school and doing the work of an academic economist.”

As a minority woman in economics, Cook has had her share of challenges.  “People assume that even though I’m in the economics department, and the questions I ask are economics questions, that I’m a political scientist or sociologist or an administrator,” says Cook.  “I think it’s because there are so few black female economists, and the ones they might have known aren’t doing research anymore. It probably takes people a while to get accustomed to seeing blacks and women teaching these courses or doing this kind of research.”

 “I’m often—as a female and as an African American—challenged as an authority figure,” she adds. “It took me some time to realize that it’s not just me. And it’s not just my field. It would be the same in any quantitative field.  I’ve learned to manage the perceptions of students and colleagues.  I talk to others in a similar position, and other women have given me solutions to overcome this barrier.”

Looking back on that mountaintop decision, she knows it was the right one. “I’m in awe of these tools we have to clarify and hopefully answer questions,” she says. “In economics, we have a set of models to address the questions that philosophy poses.”

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Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust's answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

Perfect day – A perfect day would be a Mel Brooks film festival—and a matinee no less (largely just to see who gets to go to movies in the middle of the day), then take the Concorde to my favorite places, like Terra del Fuego, or to Capetown or Tunis.

Worst job – phlebotomist. This was my mother’s last-ditch effort to get me to get a doctorate in medicine rather than in physics or philosophy.

Dream job - Apart from the field of economics, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, head of the Gates Foundation, or head writer for Saturday Night Live or the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Favorite indulgence – I don’t have a television, so renting a DVD (Stanley Kubrick, Mel Brooks, Monty Python, or Dave Chappelle) is an indulgence.

Most deplorable trait in others – Lack of curiosity.

Favorite city – Cape Town.

Favorite movie - Dr. Strangelove

What was the last book you read?
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (fiction), by Marina Lewycka. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and since I lived in Russia during the transition she talks of, it was very, very interesting. I am still reading Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine by Jeffrey Kluger. Having seen first-hand the dire need for vaccines for HIV, malaria, and other diseases, I have appreciated this author’s nuanced explanation of the difficulty in developing any vaccine.