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Electrifying economist investigated the economics of air pollution.

Lester Barnard Lave ’60

A picture of Lester Lave

Lester Lave ’60 in Eliot Hall in 2008 Raymond Rodriguez

Lester Barnard Lave ’60, May 9, 2011, at home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following a brief struggle with cancer. 

One of the nation's leading environmental economists, a prolific scholar, and an inspiring professor, Lester commanded wide respect for his visionary approach to issues of global energy and public policy. He studied at Reed with economists Carl Stevens ’42 [1954–90], Arthur Leigh [1945–88], and George Hay [1956–83], who served as adviser for his thesis "Applications of the Theory of Games to Economics." “The most important experience in my intellectual life was Reed,” Lester said.

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and went on to study at MIT and Harvard, where he earned a PhD in 1963. That same year, he accepted a position at Carnegie Mellon University. With the exception of four years as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in the early eighties, his academic career was at Carnegie Mellon, researching issues such as health effects of air pollution, toxic chemicals in the environment, and greenhouse effects. “I have the job of focusing my work on highly controversial issues and generally have the fun of showing that the conventional wisdom is wrong,” he wrote.

Lester studied the deregulation of energy markets, concluding that deregulation for the sake of deregulation did not always lead to lower prices. “Blind faith is unlikely to produce a free market that is competitive,” he wrote. “Substituting markets for traditional regulation is only one choice among many policy instruments to achieve a goal of lower prices; such substitution should not be a goal in itself.”

In addition to his work on deregulation, he was also known for an influential 1970 paper in Science that calculated the social and economic costs of air pollution (then viewed as primarily an aesthetic issue). He also earned a certain notoriety—or, as he put it, “a vast amount of animosity,” for his conclusion that the EV1, the electric vehicle produced by General Motors in the mid ’90s, would ultimately emit more air pollution than a traditional gasoline car because of the enormous quantity of lead in its 1,100-pound batteries.

“What I got from Reed was a certain kind of curmudgeonliness,” he once said. “A desire to get to the bottom of an issue. Let’s not just salute the flag. Let’s figure out what’s real and what’s hype. It doesn’t win you a lot of friends—but it does lead you to a lot of interesting conclusions.”

Lester was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, in recognition of his work on air pollution. In 1984, he was named James H. Higgins Chair of Economics [Harry B. and James H. Higgins Professor of Economics and Public Policy], and, in 1987, he was awarded the George Leland Bach Teaching Award. He served as chair for Carnegie Mellon's economics department, and was also Professor of Urban and Public Affairs, and Professor of Engineering and Public Policy. He published or contributed to 28 books and to more than 400 other publications. (Reed's Hauser Library holds over 160 of his publications.) He received grants from the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and a blizzard of other agencies, foundations, and companies. He served on a White House Taskforce in the Carter Administration and testified before Congress on many occasions.

In recent years, Lester examined problems in green design and the energy market. He helped to establish Carnegie Mellon's Green Design Institute, where he conducted research on sustainability, life-cycle analysis, alternative fuels, and energy prices. He was also co-director of the Electricity Industry Center and a founding member of Pittsburgh's Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). He received the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Society for Risk Analysis and the Richard Beatty Mellon Environmental Stewardship Award, given by the Air and Waste Management Association.

Decades after graduating from Reed, Lester wrote, “One of the things I wasn't taught at Reed was how much of a role luck plays in our lives. Hard work and discipline are necessary, but a large amount of luck is needed. How I wish I had been lucky enough to have a few more IQ points.”

Economist Seth Blumsack ’98, who studied under Lester at Carnegie Mellon, remarked, “Lester is the quintessential Reedie. He is a very intense guy, clearly brilliant, passionate, a really good thinker, intellectually agile. He has tackled all sorts of problems that on the surface had nothing in common, but is able to apply insights in one area to others.” Mark S. Kamlet, provost at Carnegie Mellon, said Lester reached the highest plateaus in scholarship and friendship. “His work transcended many fields, most notably in areas of risk, the environment, and economic decision-making. The world has been changed by his work.”

Lester collaborated in research on health care with his wife, economist Judith Rice, whom he married in 1965. The couple had twins, a son and daughter, and two grandchildren-all survive him. His brother, economist Charles Lave ’60, died in 2008.

"Electrifying Puzzle," by Chris Lydgate ’90, Reed magazine, winter 2009

Lester Lave's generous gift to Reed benefits the economics department—an article by Randall S. Barton in Reed magazine.

Listen to a lecture by Lester Lave, "Electricity Deregulation: Has It Worked? Can It Work?” presented for Economics Lecture Series in fall 2008.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2011

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