I learned today that Jim Parthemos has passed away, at age 92. The world has lost a good man.
Jim was my first boss as Director of Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. In retrospect, he was probably my best boss. He and his counterpart at another Federal Reserve Bank offered me similar jobs at identical pay during the hiring season in late 1967. The other job was closer to home, but the choice wasn’t even close. It came down to wanting to work for Jim.
I arrived at the Richmond Fed in August 1968 as its “international economist,” whatever that meant. It was a good field to have at an interesting time. The late 1960s and early 1970s were good for the career of an international economist. The balance of payments and exchange rates were making news, and the slow break-up of the Bretton Woods fixed-exchange rate system was under way. I was called upon frequently to write memos to the president of the bank, make presentations to the board of directors, and make outside speeches about the latest currency devaluation or revaluation or what was going on with the balance of payments and gold flows.
Milton Friedman was pushing floating exchange rates and saying that they would end the perpetual crisis. He was right. My time in the economics limelight declined when we floated and international issues faded. I was gradually given administrative responsibilities to take up the slack.
What made Jim Parthemos the perfect boss from my point of view was that he knew my strengths and weaknesses better than I did. His assignments usually involved a little stretch, but not too much. He knew better than I what I could handle and what I probably couldn’t. He protected me from total failure.
I guess I wasn’t the best economist, per se, in the department because early on he made me the editor of the economic review and other publications. He gave me his general vision for lines of research and articles and had me assign them and work with the authors to completion—a combination of some economics and lots of nagging and begging to meet deadlines. This meant that I did more rewriting than writing, which suited me because I doubted my creativity when the page was blank.
My semi-administrative role further morphed and I was given administrative responsibility for other departments in the bank and, eventually, in March 1980, was made the officer in charge of the Richmond Fed’s Baltimore branch.
When I arrived in Richmond in 1968, Jim gave me two pieces of advice. The first was that I should buy a house rather than rent temporarily as I had planned. That advice may not apply to these times, but it applied then. I took it and was glad I did.
His other advice had to do with investing my money. He simply pointed out that the younger you are the more you should invest in the stock market, and, as you get older, you should switch more into fixed income. I meant to take that advice, but I’m afraid that I found fixed income too boring, to my early delight and recent regret.
Jim was a gardener. He always recommended it to me as good exercise. I could never tell if he was serious. I conceded that it was probably good exercise for the soul, but I doubted it would do much for the body. He was 92 when he passed, so I may have been wrong about that.
Jim was a Greek from South Carolina. I was never sure whether he was born here or just came at an early age. In any case, he spoke the language and was steeped in its history—actually all history. He impressed me more with his knowledge of history than his knowledge of economics. That’s not to denigrate the latter. It’s just that, as an economist, he was, above all, a common-sense pragmatist rather than an ideologue of one kind or another against which his purity could be judged. We need a few more of those these days.
After Jim retired, he offered to take those of us interested for a tour of Greece. Those 16 days in Greece in 1988 turned out to be my first major foreign travel. Jim was the general guide, but he’d arranged for special guides for parts of the tour. I think of that wonderful experience every day that the Greek tragedy is in the news. Aside from all the highfalutin sites and lectures, two things I remember from that experience was that Amstel Light seemed to be the beer of choice, and American rock and roll was the background music.
Jim was a scholar and a gentlemen, through and through. I never heard him speak ill of anyone. A petty thought never entered his head. He was always there for his “young bucks” as he called us, including Al Broaddus who later became president of the Richmond Fed and shared all Jim’s characteristics.
It was Al that notified me of Jim’s passing. He reminded me that, when Jim reported back to us after FOMC meetings, he always began by saying the meeting hadn’t been very “edifying.” Given Jim’s high standards, I’m sure that was true for him, but I suspect it was also meant to ease our envy at not getting to attend ourselves. Later in our careers, Al and I became members of the FOMC, no doubt largely because of our early training from Jim.
Most of you never heard of Jim Parthemos, but, trust me, the world has lost one of its best.