Reflection from Ben Graham

Given at the UCSD Economics Department Gathering on Aug 13, 2012

My name is Ben Graham, and I am a grad school colleague of Ben's. I wanted to tell you a little bit about one of his academic projects, and about what it was like to work with him.

Over the past couple of years, Ben and I worked on a project modeling unrecognized statehood. Unrecognized states are places like South Ossetia and Somaliland where the secessionists have gained control of most of the territory they want to rule, but they can’t quite turn the corner and become a recognized country. These unrecognized states sometimes sit around for decades sinking deeper into poverty and isolation, local government becomes harder and harder to distinguish from organized crime. Normatively, these are really bad outcomes for everyone involved, but they can also be really stable outcomes. So a good theoretical puzzle. Initially I’d tried to tackle this myself, with my little two-player bargaining model. But the situation was just a lot more complex than I could handle with my little toy model, so I talked to Ben and he came on board to build a nuclear powered, laser guided, four player model that could really explain what was going on.

The great thing about working with Ben was that not only did he have such great technical skills, he also knew and cared about these territories and the people living in them. He’d spent time in Transnistria, he knew all the ins and outs of the history of Northern Cyprus. He could do the formal theory and the mathematics, but he understood the human side too.

And he was just good at what he did. We’d be talking about the model, and some new wrinkle I wanted to add to make it even more complicated, and I’d say, “so if we do that, can we still solve the model?” And he’d think about it for a moment, and say, “Yeah, sure. I can do that. The math on that is easy.” I was always glad he could do it, but I’ll tell you one thing, “the math on that” was not easy. He was just that good.

A lot of what I’ve read in memory of Ben has focused on what a wonderful companion he was outdoors – on the trail, in the mountains. He was a pretty amazing companion for intellectual adventures as well.