Anders Paalzow, June 2016
It is with deep sadness that we received the news of the sudden death of Alf Vanags, Director of the Baltic International Centre for Economic Policy Studies (BICEPS) and former Eurofaculty and SSE Riga faculty member. Prior to coming to Riga he held academic positions at Queen Mary & Westfield College London University. Alf was one of the founding editors of the Baltic Journal of Economics and served as its Managing Editor at the time of passing away. As Director of BICEPS he was one of the founders of the FREE Network (Forum for Research in Eastern Europe and Emerging Economies).
When Alf, after almost 50 years, came back to the Riga he had left as a two-year old refugee he could hardly have imagined the impact he – as educator and even more important as founding director of the Baltic International Centre for Economic Policy Studies (BICEPS) – would have on the reborn Republic in the more than 20 years to come. Pursuing an academic career in UK with stints in China, Canada and Australia, the Eurofaculty project at the University of Latvia eventually lured him back to his native Latvia providing him with an opportunity to educate a new generation of Latvian economists.
Eurofaculty with its pioneering spirit suited Alf and his enthusiasm extremely well. It allowed him to flourish in way that would not have been possible in UK academia. It was not only Alf who flourished at Eurofaculty. Alf made his students grow and eventually flourish through an unorthodox mix of highly qualified education combined with social activities such as inviting all his students to his apartment where home cooked meatballs were served.
Even though most of today’s leading Latvian economists who are in the 30s and early 40s were Alf’s students, his impact is even greater through his work at BICEPS. Alf and BICEPS were almost synonyms from the inception of BICEPS in the early 2000s to Alf’s very last day in life. Joining the BICEPS team were several generations of young researchers, who all grew in the fertile and very special BICEPS environment created by Alf and with the slogan “Once you are in, you can never get out”.
Through Alf, BICEPS played an important role as virtually the only independent voice in the Latvian economic policy debate. A look into the policy papers produced at BICEPS reveals Alf’s broad competence. The topics range from regulatory issues in the telecom sector, through labour market policy, to venture capital. Legendary were the inflation reports co-authored with his long-term colleague and friend Morten Hansen – in particular the one written at the eve of the Latvian economic crisis and where Alf at the press conference labelled Latvia a “banana republic”. With or without the banana republic, Alf’s analysis was always theoretically well underpinned. Through his strong integrity, sharpness and straightforwardness, his analyses were not always appreciated by the Latvian policy makers. Moreover, history showed that he more or less always was right.
Alf’s dedication to his work, in particular at BICEPS was very high. Nevertheless it did not prevent him from enjoying what he called “the good life” – good food and drink in company of friends. Part of experiencing good life was also having a good conversation. A typical conversation could involve some serious economics, a bit of politics, Alf reporting on his recent experience flying with airBaltic and the tantrum following it, a bit of horse racing and finally where to have the best Peking duck. It was never boring – Alf’s wit and intelligence always made it entertaining. It was quite often also somewhat of an intellectual challenge since Alf liked to challenge every view and sometimes wanted to be in opposition just for the sake of it. But he was not a rebel without a cause. His youthful rebelliousness was his way of learning and taking things forward no matter the occasion. It was also to a large extent how we, his friends, colleagues, and students learnt from him.
Like all of us, Alf had another more fragile side. He was maybe better than most of us in terms of hiding, using his wit and good sense of humour. But it was there with all its depth, however rarely seen. It was at one of those rare moments, we ended up discussing the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. We even agreed on the soprano whose performance of the Songs was the best. Now I do not remember whether it was Schwarzkopf, Fleming or Norman. What I do remember, however, is that September with words by Hermann Hesse was the one of the four songs that Alf loved the most:
The garden mourns.
Cool rain sinks into the flowers. The summer shivers
quietly to its end.
He stands for a long time at the roses. Longing for a rest.
Slowly he closes
his big tired eyes.
We are all grateful that we have been plants in the garden of Alf.
Acting director, BICEPS
Rector, SSE Riga
C. Charles Okeahalam, Friday 12th May 2017
Professor Anders Paalzow, The Rector, Swedish School of Economics in Riga, members of Alf' Vanags’s family and his colleagues at BICEPS and elsewhere, ladies and gentlemen. I am glad to be here to say a few words about Alf Vanags after which, Professor Erik Berglof will give the Alf Vanags Memorial Lecture.
Of course many of you knew Alf much better than I did. But for a few years I knew him quite well. So while I note the wonderful eulogy which Professor Paalzow wrote at the time of Alf’s passing, please permit me to add a few words.
I met Alf in 1986. Alf was my PhD supervisor. I truly regret that I lost touch with him soon after completing the PhD in 1991. I am not sure how this happened. I guess the chase for academic tenure, research and publication/promotion etc and then thereafter establishing and building AGH Capital got the better of me. I know that on occasions when I have visited Russia, I considered the possibility of visiting Riga - but never got round to it prior to now. I suppose in some way this points to (among other things) a need for further cooperation between the Baltic States and sub-Sahara Africa. It also points to the ‘….urgency of now…’ . We should not procrastinate. So I regret that I left it till now to visit Riga.
ALF AS A PERSON
Alf was an intellectually strong man. Unlike many who may be as gifted in this regard, he was not a show off. He did however have an ability to truly understand issues and could quickly see, accept, or, spear an argument. He was a good teacher and intellectual problem solver. I recall that once we realised that my proposal would require a significant amount of econometric modelling he knew just waht to do. He said lets have drink! Thereafter he asked me to re-read the famous market for lemons paper by George Akerlof and this led me to a 1976 paper on ‘Product differentiation and Welfare’ by Spence and the paper ‘Conditional Logit Analysis of Qualitative Choice Behavior’- McFadden (1973). This immediately clarified what I wanted to do and in fact ended up being an econometrics Ph.D. You may all state, Alf was not an econometrician! Yes, but he had a good mind and could see the big picture! I can never forget the encouragement he gave as there was data and so I spent a year entering raw daw into SAS to build a data set so as to test a whole series of models and he kept saying… build the models but see the big picture. By 1990 I had had enough and submitted a draft which Alf went through, while I went to the US on a European Science Foundation Fellowship. By the time I got back, I was ready to put in the last push and complete. Now that style influenced my subsequent supervsion of my own students - a balanced approach (seriousness and conviviality), leads to improved performance. Alf was a bon vivant who enjoyed a good drink and meal. I was a keen athlete at the time. However, I soon realised that some of the best insights from my supervisor could be obtained during the drinking sessions we had every month. I did my PhD as a part-time student while working as Research Fellow at the University of Kent, Canterbury. I always took the late train back to Canterbury more knowledgeable but less able to train effectively or even do much else, the next day!.
ALF THE SCHOLAR
The amazing thing about Alf was his understanding and grasp of a wide spectrum of the economics literature and his ability to bring in disparate fields of our dismal science together. Take for example the paper ‘ Spot and Period Rates in the Dry Bulk Market' which he co-authored with Chris Hale and published in 1989 in the Journal of Transport Economics and Policy. That paper uses rational expectations theory and term structure of interests rate theory to consider market efficiency in the dry bulk shipping freight rate market. For the cognoscenti that paper remains something of a classic in this particular area of maritime economics.
ALF THE POLICY ADVISER
Alf was a patriot. He kept his Latvian passport and declined the opportunity to apply for a British passport. Prior to the wall coming down he had to apply for a visa to most places. In weird logic, he always joked that people thought of him as a spy of some sort! Alf a spy !!!? Hmmmm, let’s think about this – well, I suppose more strange things have happened. Also he often said that when the opportunity arose he would return to Latvia. Which he did. By all accounts this appears to have been a good decision. The standing and reputation which BICEPS has in Latvia and this region and the research projects and consultancy policy role it has played confirms the contribution that Alf made. I am sure that the academic and economic policy landscape is worse off as a result of the passing of Alf Vanags. He made a contribution and ran the race. He will be missed!
C. Charles Okeahalam
Friday 12th May 2017