Man in motion

Man in motion

What economist J. Barkley Rosser can teach us about how we adapt to a changing world

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SUMMARY: One of JMU’s longest-serving faculty members, Barkley Rosser has published several books and more than 200 journal articles, book chapters and book reviews in a variety of subfields of economics. He is known for his study of complexity, chaos theory and speculative bubbles, as well as for his equation, which can be used to forecast ratios of future Social Security benefits to current ones in real terms. He and his wife, Marina, a renowned economist and retired JMU professor, co-authored a widely used textbook on comparative economic systems.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ’17M)

For hundreds of years, from the dawn of the Industrial Age through the middle of the 20th century, economics was considered a closed system operating in equilibrium, with humans making purely rational decisions in their own narrow self-interests. By the 1960s, however, a new way of thinking about economics—as a system in motion, one that is continually reinventing itself and involves interaction between many dispersed, heterogeneous agents—was emerging. 

John Barkley Rosser Jr., then a student of economics at the University of Wisconsin, was among the proponents of this new heterodox school, which employed research methods and tools from disciplines such as psychology, physics and ecology. His undergraduate honors thesis, written in 1969, correctly predicted the stabilization of global oil prices. He stayed in Madison for all three degrees, earning his doctorate in 1976 while studying under economist Eugene Smolensky, known for his work detailing the impact of economic and demographic changes on the distribution of income among various social groups.

The son of a prominent mathematician, Rosser, who goes by Barkley, initially majored in physics. “It’s almost a cliché that most of the work in mathematics and economics was originally done in physics,” he said. “There’s a certain highway between people doing physics and doing economics, and I sort of made that move like a lot of other people.” 

Rosser wrote the entry on “econophysics” for The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics; Rosser is senior co-editor of the forthcoming fourth edition. The award-winning publication contains entries written by the world’s most influential economists, including 36 Nobel laureates, dating to the 1890s.

Rosser inherited his father’s talent for mathematical models and computational analysis, which has proven valuable for analyzing how modern economic structures form, reform and interact with human behavior. “Some of the mathematical interests that I have, and have had, are actually some of the things that my father did,” he said. 

barkley rosser classroom
Rosser sketches an equation for students in the classroom.

An econ legend in the making
One of JMU’s longest-serving faculty members, Rosser joined the economics department in 1977 and became a full professor in 1988. He has been the Kirby L. Cramer Jr. Professor of Business Administration since 1996. During his tenure, he has published several books and more than 200 journal articles, book chapters and book reviews in a variety of subfields of economics.

“I love scholarship, but I also love teaching, and JMU has allowed me to do both,” Rosser said, adding he takes pride in helping students understand economic theory and applications.

His first book, From Catastrophe to Chaos: A General Theory of Economic Discontinuities (1991), challenged established economic thinking that the world is fundamentally continuous. Rosser made the case for discontinuities, including catastrophe theory, chaos theory, synergetics and fractal geometry. The book was rejected by 13 publishers before finally appearing in print. 

“At the time, it was seen as a very odd book,” Rosser said. “A lot of the things I was talking about then were not really accepted.” From Catastrophe to Chaos has since been re-printed several times and is now used as a reference. 

Rosser has been a visiting professor around the globe; he’s taught and studied in Italy, Ecuador, Germany, Japan, France, Australia and Sweden. He has published extensively on the subject of behavioral economics. He was editor of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization from 2001 to 2010, and in 2012 became founding editor-in-chief of the Review of Behavioral Economics. 

“The foundation of behavioral economics is that people are not perfectly rational, and we need to study how they actually behave,” he said. “And they behave on the basis of all sorts of oddball things. Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot better understanding about what some of those oddball things are.” 

Popping bubbles of conventional wisdom 
Rosser has also furthered the study of speculative bubbles—such as the one that led to the housing market crash in 2008 and subsequent global recession—by providing a mathematical model for predicting if and when they might burst.

“There was a period of time, not that long ago, when the established thinking was that these bubbles can’t exist,” Rosser said. “[Traditionalists] would tell you, ‘Rational agents will not participate in speculative bubbles. People know what the true value of a stock or a house is. Somebody is not going to buy something just because it’s going up in price.’ … Of course, we now know this not to be true.”

It’s easy to get caught up in speculative investment, Rosser said. “People will say, ‘Oh, prices are rising. I’ll buy and make a bunch of money.’ And of course, if you play it right, you can. People do make money in bubbles. They’re the ones who buy low and sell high. But then you have the poor suckers who come in, buy at the peak and they’re stuck, especially if they borrow a lot of money to do it.”

In 2004, Rosser answered some of the critics of modern economics, arguing that the profession was “moving away from a strict adherence to the holy trinity [of] rationality, selfishness and equilibrium” and toward the “four Cs of cybernetics, catastrophe, chaos and complexity.”

A co-author at the time informed Rosser that although he might have once been a rebel, his ideas were becoming mainstream. “It was not a question of me moving toward orthodoxy as it was the profession moving closer to me,” he said.

Rosser even has an equation named after him that can be used to forecast ratios of future Social Security benefits to current ones in real terms. He developed it in 2005 in response to public debate about whether Social Security, which was created to provide partial replacement income for qualified retirees and their families, was in danger of going bankrupt. Rosser’s equation suggests it is not. In fact, it shows that future recipients actually will receive more in benefits, after inflation, than those who are retiring today.

Economist Bruce Webb declared the equation “something between an inside joke and a tribute to professor Barkley Rosser.” 

Rosser used the public hysteria surrounding Social Security as a teaching moment, encouraging JMU students to be more aware of issues regarding the federal budget and to identify and sort through media bias. 

barkley rosser with marina
Barkely and his wife, Marina, a native of Russia, married in 1987 after nearly three years of diplomatic entanglements between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Their case helped establish legal precedent giving individuals the right to marry whom they choose, across national boundaries. 

Marina Rosser’s impact 
For all of his scholarship and professional accolades—a fellow of Economists for Peace and Security; recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia; ambassador of the University of Urbino, Italy; president of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology & Life Sciences—Rosser said his proudest achievement is having helped establish legal precedent giving individuals the right to marry whom they choose, across national boundaries.

On Aug. 15, 1984, Rosser became legally engaged to the former Marina Rostislavovna Vcherashnaya, whom he met during an exchange trip to Moscow organized by Elizabeth Neatrour, JMU professor emerita of Russian. The couple was scheduled to be married Nov. 13, 1984. But after Barkley returned to the U.S., Marina was forced to resign from her position as senior researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and he was not granted a visa to return to Moscow to marry her. Their blocked marriage case violated the Helsinki Accords signed by the Soviet Union in 1975. After diplomatic efforts linked to the emerging perestroika program of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, their case was finally resolved when Marina was allowed to travel to the U.S. They married May 24, 1987.

That fall, Marina Rosser, a renowned economist with a long list of publications, joined the economics faculty at JMU. She later became the first female economist with a doctorate from Moscow State University to be granted tenure in an American university. She retired in 2019.

Over the years, Marina taught multiple classes in comparative economics, helping broaden students’ understanding of the diversity of economic and societal systems. She also led numerous study-abroad programs, helping participants gain global awareness and multicultural affinity.

Marina said she tried to be a role model for young women, in particular, looking to make their mark. “The world is big, and it belongs to them,” she said. “If they really know what’s out there, then I have fulfilled my duty.”

She, too, appreciates the opportunities available to JMU professors. “You go to a bigger [school] and there is a race for research grants,” she said. “But this is a very balanced atmosphere. Research. Teaching. Service. The faculty here appreciate that. And the leadership has a very favorable view.”

Together, the Rossers have co-authored a number of important works in the field. In their widely used comparative economics systems textbook, whose first edition was published in 1996, they coined the phrase “new traditional economy.” This type of economy is rooted in the customs, traditions and beliefs of a society—especially its religion—but now incorporates modern technology to produce goods and services, and deliver them to market.

With fellow JMU economics professor Ehsan Ahmed, the Rossers were the first to argue for a two-way, positive link between income inequality and the size of an underground economy in a nation.

Marina Rosser describes her husband as a “rebel” in the field. 

“Barkley has always had an incredible sense of where the cutting edge is, and he was always pursuing it, against the odds of the mainstream,” she said. “His books have gone in many different directions, but he has always remained true to himself.” 

Rationality at the heart of economics
Why should students study economics in the 21st century?

In addition to understanding how economies work, Rosser said economics teaches a balance of approaches. “On the one hand, you develop some quantitative ability, but at the same time you’re studying people and how they behave.”

Marina added that the study of economics supports logical thinking. “Cost-benefit analysis is important, but it doesn’t apply to everything,” she said. “It gives you a framework. There are certain patterns of logical thinking that should go together with ethical considerations and cultural affinities.”

Which brings the Rossers back to the concept of rationality.

 “To some degree, rational decision making is a virtue,” Barkley said. “It’s useful for people to think about what is really rational to do in a situation. It involves thinking about other people, and how they are affected by what you and I do, and so on and so forth.” 


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Published: Friday, January 14, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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