As a youngster on a family trip to Washington, D.C., Rodney Ludema ’83 was inspired: “I remember going to the Lincoln Memorial and seeing this big statue of Abraham Lincoln and going to the Jefferson Memorial and seeing this big statue of Thomas Jefferson and seeing the Gettysburg Address engraved in the wall in marble; I just thought, ‘Wow, this is something.’ I think that is where my interest in policy started.”
He took that interest to Calvin in the early 1980s, thinking he would major in political science. “I asked around and was told if you wanted to become involved in policy, you should be a lawyer,” he said. “But that’s one of the beauties of the liberal arts curriculum at Calvin. It wasn’t until my junior year that I took a course in economics, and suddenly it clicked. Econ was exactly what I was looking for.”
Encouraged by Calvin professors like George Monsma, John Tiemstra, and Evert Van Der Heide, Ludema pursued a PhD in economics at Columbia University in New York, in preparation for a career as a professor, like his father, Ken Ludema ’55, a longtime professor at the University of Michigan.
A PROFESSOR AND POLICY MAKER
He reached that objective, spending the majority of his career as a professor at Georgetown University, in the heart of Washington, D.C., the ideal location for a person with an interest in policy.
“Georgetown turned out to be the sweet spot,” said Ludema. “The really great thing about being in Washington, D.C., is I could take a leave of absence to go work for the government, without having to pick up my house and move it. It’s just a different subway s(Lynntop.”
During his 26-year tenure at Georgetown, Ludema has taken leaves for government roles with the U.S. International Trade Commission and the White House Council of Economic Advisors under former President Obama, and most recently, chief economist for the U.S. Department of State.
Ludema was hired by then-Secretary of State John Kerry to help the department gain a better understanding of the world economy, develop smarter policies, and make the economic case for U.S. policies abroad.
SHAPING GLOBAL AGREEMENT
It was in his role as chief economist that Ludema helped to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international free trade agreement that facilitated the development of production and supply chains, and seamless trade between the U.S. and 11 other countries worldwide.
He also helped prepare the State Department for negotiating the Paris Climate Accords, an ambitious global action plan to fight climate change in cooperation with nearly 200 other countries.
“There were a number of policies that I contributed to, but these were two I was particularly proud of,” Ludema said. “They were leveraging what the U.S. does best, which is to lead our allies and friends—and in the case of the Paris Climate Accords, even many of our non-allies.”
Ludema’s involvement in these and other policy decisions was shaped by the “normative perspective that Calvin professors brought to the field of economics,” he said.
“Normative,” he said, “is thinking about the way things should be rather than the way things are. Many, or at least some, in this field are devoted to understanding how economies work, but understanding how they can get from where they are to where they ought to be is something not all economists are interested in.
“Calvin’s emphasis on a Christian world and life view and trying to understand life in all of its facets through that single lens shaped how I think about policy,” he said. “It made me think about how policy could be used in bringing about something better.”