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A Celebration of the Work of John Conlisk

Photograph of John Conlisk

UC San Diego Announcements
Memorial 12.21.2021

John Conlisk was born 1939, in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in Park Ridge. He attended Notre Dame and Northwestern, graduating from the latter with a B.A. in 1961 in Economics and earned his Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford in 1965 under the supervision of Kenneth Arrow and G. S. Maddala. He was Assistant Professor at Rice University (1964–66) and the University of Wisconsin (1966–69). John Conlisk joined the department in 1969 and retired as a Distinguished Professor in 1999.

John was an exemplary scholar, teacher, and colleague. He was a productive, original researcher. He taught a wide range of classes, spanning macroeconomics, microeconomics, and econometrics. He helped to train Ph.D. students who have had successful careers. He served the department in many administrative capacities, helped to recruit a highly regarded faculty, and established a cooperative, congenial departmental culture.

John had extraordinary range as a scholar, rare at any time and perhaps nonexistent today. He wrote a lovely paper that repurposed some results of Arrow and Hurwicz on stability of price adjustment to study the stability of Markov Chains. He provided a simple model of adaptive behavior demonstrating the competitive approximation of Cournot Markets. Earlier – long before Paul Romer, who has since won a Nobel Prize for his work on the topic – he worked on what we now call endogenous growth theory. His papers on the design and statistical analysis of social experiments are relevant to contemporary studies of school matching and the interpretation and construction of Randomized Controlled Trials. After he retired, he leveraged his knowledge about dynamical systems to write papers on mathematical ecology with his daughter. His work on Markov Chains was acknowledged by giants in the ecology field.

He ran experiments. He ran regressions. He ran simulations. Back when the department had a championship level IM soccer team, he even ran up and down the field.

John is best known for his work on bounded rationality. He criticized models that assumed agents had unbounded computational abilities and could arrive at equilibrium. He advocated simple adaptive models in which agents followed rules of thumb or based behavior on imitation rather than optimization. His beautiful Journal of Economic Literature survey is widely cited. Research pa- pers, including a paper with Dennis Smallwood on word-of-mouth advertising, a gem called “Costly Optimizers and Cheap Imitators,” and simple models of learning dynamics in games are early and original contributions to behavioral economics.

No matter the topic, John wrote with wit, clarity, and precision. He is worth reading no matter the topic.

John was a remarkable departmental citizen, rotating through many important departmental and campus tasks. When he did a job, he did it thoroughly. When he taught a class, he created meticulously prepared lecture notes. After he served as undergraduate adviser, he left detailed instructions that students could use to navigate administrative requirements. As chair, he wrote unforgettable memos undermining the “logic” behind ridiculous administrative decisions. Ironically, while John insisted on the limits of rationality in his research, he was unfailingly rational in his contributions to departmental governance.

John was a dedicated and effective mentor. He served on more than twenty dissertation committees, advising students working in macroeconomics, econometrics, and pure and applied microeconomics. His students praised his range of knowledge, problem solving skills, and ability to identify and explain the most important aspects of problems in clear and accessible terms.

John Conlisk died in his home on October 22, 2021. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth, his son Michael and wife Noriko, and his daughter Erin and partner Matt and their children Fiona and Orion.

Joel Sobel, UC San Diego Professor of Economics