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Richard C. Porter, a development and natural resource economist who was a pioneering investigator of environmental questions in developing economies, died on August 3, 2018 at Glacier Hills in Ann Arbor.
Porter was a dedicated teacher and a researcher with broad interests who came to the University of Michigan as an associate professor in 1964 and stayed for the remainder of his professional career, continuing to teach undergraduates after becoming Professor Emeritus in 1999. Born in 1931 in New Haven, Connecticut, Porter travelled extensively during his life. He lived in India, Pakistan, Colombia, Kenya, Indonesia, South Africa, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Botswana in his roles as a researcher, economic advisor or teacher.
Of the many papers and several books he wrote, Porter's favorite was one of his last: The Economics of Water and Waste in Three African Capitals (1997). He had been appalled seeing that poor residents had to drink out of the sewer. His analysis suggested ways to change the pricing for water in order to finance the necessary infrastructure and to rationalize its use. Porter's research had an impact: The recommendations were implemented in Harare, Zimbabwe, within a year, he recalled during a 2017 interview.
The work exemplifies Porter's approach to research, which was to ask: "How can we use economics to make this problem in the world more visible, clearer, and more compelling?" says Paul Courant, former Provost and professor of public policy, economics and information at the University of Michigan.
Porter's route to development and environmental economics was circuitous. His early work focused on monetary policy and banking. A graduate of Williams College, Porter received his doctorate in economics from Yale University where he worked with Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin. He would continue to collaborate with Tobin beyond his years at Yale. In particular, Porter was research director of a blue-ribbon committee convened by the governor of Puerto Rico and led by Tobin to study the island's finances during the early to mid-1970s. The final document, which came to be known as the Tobin Report, drew lessons that remained relevant for the U.S. territory's recent debt crisis.
From his arrival at the University of Michigan, Porter was involved with the Center for Research on Economic Development (CRED) and was its Associate Director from 1964 until 1978. As his involvement with development economics grew, Porter began to publish research on natural resources, trade and development. In addition, Porter was attracted to the environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He began to teach a course on environmental economics, which focused on vehicles and on waste. His interests in these areas would culminate in the publication of Economics at the Wheel: The Costs of Cars and Drivers (1999) and The Economics of Waste (2002).
It was not just the importance of the environmental problems that made the subjects compelling to Porter. He saw these policy failures as an excellent opportunity to teach students how to think economically with real-world problems. Porter took teaching extremely seriously and loved to teach undergraduates. His book on the economics of the car was the outcome of a course on "Economics and the Automobile" which he co-taught with Paul Courant and James Levinsohn. For the purposes of teaching, the car was in every sense a vehicle for making vivid and relevant economic concepts ranging from how cars affected the size of American cities; to industrial production and international trade; to pollution, accidents, and congestion.
Porter was associate chair when the economics building in Central campus burned down on Christmas Eve, 1981. "It fell to Dick to do an enormous amount of organizational work to try to hold the place together," recalls Courant. "He was selfless and invaluable at a very important time of crisis. He was one of the people who really stepped up." The efforts to rebuild the economics department after the fire took several years, involving both work on the new building and vigorous recruiting of new faculty. The department moved to its new home in the renovated Lorch Hall during Porter's tenure as chair of the economics department from 1986 to 1989.
"Dick was a very spirited participant in departmental meetings and departmental seminars," recalls Peter Heller who, as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s had an office next to Porter. "He was a real mentor to me as young faculty member," says Heller, who is currently a visiting professor at Williams College after a career at the International Monetary Fund. Porter would read and mark up colleagues' papers carefully as well as dispense advice on teaching and working with students.
"Dick touched so many of us with his dedication to the Department and to undergraduate education, and his passion for policies based on economic principles and behavior," says Janet Gerson, Lecturer IV Emerita in Economics, who was hired by Porter in 1983.
With his pithy humor and keen observation, Porter's contributions to life in the economics department went well-beyond assigned and formal roles. "When the department was housed in the old building, there was a recurring game of stickball which we played with a little tiny plastic ball and a broom handle for a bat," recalls Courant. "Dick and George Johnson were the ringleaders of the game. Lots of people played, including Ned Gramlich, John Laitner and several others." Whenever the weather was decent they would play three on three or four on four after lunch. "Dick had some experience. His father had been a competent semi-professional baseball player and had once struck Lou Gehrig out," says Courant.
An avid scuba diver and experienced backpacker, Porter would walk around campus for months every spring with a backpack that would get increasingly heavier in preparation for his annual backpacking trip.
Dick is survived by his wife Mary, son John, daughter-in-law Brooke and grandchildren Blake and Chase. He was predeceased by his brother Jerry and daughter Jennifer.
In lieu of flowers, the family request that donations be sent to Arbor Hospice, Ann Arbor, MI. A memorial service will be held on Saturday August 25, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, 306 North Division Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104.