An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Distinguished economist Lisa D. Cook joined the Lakeside Upper School community Thursday, Dec. 17 as part of the BMGI Speaker Series on Economics. In addition to the morning assembly, Cook spent the day with a variety of student groups. She was interviewed by a reporter from Lakeside’s student newspaper, Tatler; met with students in the Black Student Union; and attended a microeconomics class.

In the morning presentation to Upper School students, faculty, and staff, Cook talked about how economics is a tool for figuring out puzzles — particularly puzzles that can improve people’s lives through raising standards of living. She traced a series of puzzles that she has explored in some of her best-known work, about the negative impact of racial violence on innovation, and the subsequent impacts on economic growth and generational wealth.

As a Ph.D. student working on her dissertation at University of California, Berkeley, Cook was in Russia in the early 1990s, writing about banking systems as the country was transitioning to a market economy. In her research, she encountered a puzzle, often posed to her by Russian bankers and entrepreneurs: Why doesn’t innovation come to Russia? Even as she was finishing her PhD and graduating, “this puzzle kept nagging at me.” Why weren’t people in Russia submitting patents? Why wasn’t innovation happening?

Cook wondered if there were a historical example in the United States that could elucidate the puzzle. She came up with a potential experiment. The late 1800s were a golden age of invention; what if she looked at African American inventors and the patents submitted in the late1800s and early 1900s? How did segregation, race riots, and lynchings affect innovation and patents submitted by African American inventors?

She painstakingly collected data on patents and types of violence between 1870 and 1940. Cook discovered that before 1900 the number of patents submitted by white and African American inventors was moving in the same direction, although they were at different orders of magnitude. Then, around 1900, the numbers start moving in opposite directions: the number plummeted for African Americans and continued growing for white Americans. A new puzzle, remarked Cook. What happened in 1900? “We know there was no significant change in the patent system; and the cost of patenting didn’t go up.”

What changed was violence. The year 1893 was the peak of white Americans lynching of African Americans. Before 1900, race riots were mainly occurring in the South; after 1900 they spread to other regions of the country, including places were African American inventors were based, including the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and New England.

Cook ran regressions, tried to figure what else could have caused the downturn. But ultimately, she said, “what you see was what was happening.” Remarking on her findings, Cook said, “You have to be prepared for other types of puzzles; they can be nested. You have to have an open mind to solve whatever puzzles are there.”

She brought this research back to Russia, where her colleagues found it intuitive. Likewise, in China and the Ukraine. Wherever you have an imperfect system of physical property protections, and a lack of personal security, there was an impact to innovation. “Intellectual property rights are not enough,” she said. “You have to have a calm, peaceful environment. … You have to be able to interact with others. Patent attorneys were all white. Business districts were white. [African American inventors] couldn’t go to libraries to interact with other inventors or to look at the patent digest [to see what other work was being done].” And the impact of this has lasted for generations. Looking at updated patent data in 2010, Cook found that 1899 was still the peak for African American inventors submitting patents.

In closing her remarks, Cook encouraged students not only to consider economics as a field, but to “open your mind to puzzles and the tools of economics that are used to answer these puzzles.”

During the Q&A moderated by juniors Kate P. and Welela S., Cook fielded students’ questions on how her research applies to current-day Russia and China; the effects of natural disasters and wars on innovation; ways to measure human well-being; her ideas on how the incoming Biden administration could make equitable economic growth a priority; and how she entered the field herself.

Attempting to correct a common misunderstanding about economics, Cook responded, “It’s not just all dead white men – anybody can be an economist!” Channeling Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve and President Elect Biden’s proposed nominee for Secretary of the Treasury, Cook shared that the view that the last financial crisis was due to the fact that there weren’t diverse economists asking questions and looking at data. “You have to have different people with different lived experiences actually engaged in policy making. It’s a mistake to think of one type of person as being the only type of person who can contribute, either to research in economics or policy making. We can all contribute.”

Lisa D. Cook is Professor of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University. She was the first Marshall Scholar from Spelman College and earned a second B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford University. She earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley with fields in macroeconomics and international economics. Prior to this appointment, she was on the faculty of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Deputy Director for Africa Research at the Center for International Development at Harvard University, and a National Fellow at Stanford University.

Cook is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and is the author of a number of published articles, book chapters, and working papers. She is on the Board of Editors of the Journal of Economic Literature, and her research has appeared in such journals as the American Economic Review and the Journal of Economic Growth. Among her current research interests are economic growth and development, innovation, financial institutions and markets, and economic history.

She is currently Director of the American Economic Association Summer Program and was President of the National Economic Association from 2015 to 2016. She serves on the Advisory Board of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation of the Smithsonian Institution and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2019, she was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association and was also awarded the Impactful Mentor Award (for mentoring graduate students) by the American Economic Association Mentoring Pipeline Program.

During the 2011-2012 academic year, she was on leave at the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama where she worked on innovation, the euro crisis, and small business, and has had visiting appointments at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the University of Michigan, and the Federal Reserve Banks of New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia.

From 2017-2019, she was a Sigma Xi (Scientific Research Society) Distinguished Lecturer. She is a guest columnist for the Detroit Free Press and a regular commentator on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and PBS among others. She speaks English, French, Russian, Spanish, and Wolof.