Thursday, March 22, 2007

Remembering John

I blogged about the tragic death of Stanford economist John McMillan here.

I was not his friend, and frankly I did not know him. However, we talked a couple of times over the phone when I was a graduate student in the US. That was in the early 1990s.

John was still at UC San Diego back then. Some of you might recall, in the early 1990s, John together with his colleague China expert Barry Naughton and two other authors had written several papers on Chinese SOE reform. One of which called Autonomy and Incentives in Chinese State Enterprise was eventually published in Quarterly Journal of Economics.

I was searching for a dissertation topic, and I thought about doing one on comparing productivity of SOE vs the non-state sector, which was a hot topic at the time. Called John up one day, I asked him if he would provide me with the data set used in several of his studies. He gave me some pointers on how to get hold of the data and told me to get help from one of his co-authors who was more familiar with the data.

I finally got hold of the data though I never used them. I felt forever indebted to him because of his generosity though. A big name professor dispensed his time generously on a unknown student from a far away university (my school is on the east coast, his the west).

That summer I came back to Hong Kong for a short visit. I picked up a book which has the translation of the essay written by John and his coauthors mentioned above. Got it and sent it to John after I returned to the US later that summer. And that was the last time I talked to him over the phone.

John affected me in another way. Another essay of his coauthored again with Barry Naughton served as an inspiration for my thesis. That essay is called How to Reform a Planned Economy: Lessons from China published in the 1992 issue of Oxford Review of Economic Policy. The influence of Hayek was notable in that piece. And that paper served as one of the papers which kick-started the ensuing debate regarding the different approaches transitional economies should adopt in a bid to reform their economies. That's the so called "Big Bang" versus "Evolutionary" approach to economic reform debate.

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