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Richard Cooper, Longtime Harvard Economist and Public Servant, Dies at 86

Harvard's Economics department is located in the Littauer Center for Public Administration building. Longtime Harvard economist Richard N. Cooper died in December after nearly 40 years at the University.
Harvard's Economics department is located in the Littauer Center for Public Administration building. Longtime Harvard economist Richard N. Cooper died in December after nearly 40 years at the University. By Mia B. Frothingham
By Natalie L. Kahn, Crimson Staff Writer

In the 1960s, Richard N. Cooper rode his bicycle to work every day at the Council of Economic Advisers in Washington, D.C.

The first time Cooper attended a meeting with then-President John F. Kennedy ’40, Kennedy stopped the meeting to ask, “Who is that kid?” upon seeing Cooper, according to Harvard Kennedy School professor Jeffrey A. Frankel, a friend of Cooper’s.

Cooper was “always much younger than his age,” Frankel said.

Though he may have looked young for his age, Cooper — who taught international economics at Harvard starting in 1981 and served in four different U.S. presidential administrations — was a talented economist, public servant, and professor, according to his colleagues.

He died of lymphoma on Dec. 23 at age 86 at his home in Cambridge, his daughter, Laura Cooper, told The Washington Post.

He leaves behind a wife, Jin Chen Cooper, and their two children William C. Cooper ’23 and Jennifer Cooper, in addition to two children from a first marriage, Laura and Mark Cooper.

Cooper was born in Seattle on June 14, 1934 and raised in Greenbelt, Md. Following the end of World War II, his family spent four years in Frankfurt, Germany, where his father – a retired journalist – worked as a political and public affairs officer for the High Commission for Occupied Germany.

A graduate of Oberlin College, Cooper received a master’s degree from the London School of Economics as a Marshall Scholar and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 1962.

While doing dissertation research at the Brookings Institute, Cooper caught the attention of the Kennedy administration, for which he became a senior economist at just age 26.

Under Kennedy, Cooper worked at the Council of Economic Advisors from 1961 to 1963, after which he went on to serve as the President Lyndon Johnson's Assistant Secretary of State for International Monetary Affairs in 1965.

Cooper published his first book, “The Economics of Interdependence: Economic Policy in the Atlantic Community,” in 1968.

Frankel wrote in a blog post that Cooper’s 1968 book set the “original foundation of the study of international cooperation.”

That same international cooperation would play a central role in Cooper’s subsequent positions as Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs in the Carter administration, and chair of the National Intelligence Council under President Bill Clinton.

Frankel wrote that Cooper played an important role in devising the renowned “locomotive theory,” which posited that the U.S., Germany, and Japan could use fiscally expansive policies to pull the rest of the world out of the 1974-75 recession.

From 1990 to 1992, Cooper served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

“It’s pretty rare that in your position in Washington you get to affect precisely the same ideas that you worked on academically,” Frankel said.

Cooper’s work was not constrained to policy alone, though. He taught economics at Yale University from 1966 to 1977, serving as provost from 1972 to 1974. In 1981, he joined Harvard’s faculty as the Maurits C. Boas Professor of International Economics.

Cooper bridged the gap between academic theory and real life, according to his colleague, Harvard economics professor Benjamin M. Friedman ’66.

“He always wanted to know how any piece of theory applied to the real world, whether the assumptions behind it were reasonable, and above all what practical implications followed,” Friedman wrote in an email.

Frankel remembers him as a “great moderator” who could “sharpen the discussion.”

“He was always frequently deliberate in making people say exactly what they meant,” Frankel said. “Students saw it at big conferences; I saw it at the dinner table.”

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at

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