Teacher-Scholar Legacies: Allin Cottrell

By Robert Whaples, Professor of Economics

Very few people in the Wake Forest community realize that Allin Cottrell is an international superstar. 

Cottrell, who earned a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford University and a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Edinburgh, joined the department in 1989 after teaching briefly at UNC-Chapel Hill and Elon College. He was originally more interested in philosophy but realized that “anyone who wishes to ‘change the world for the better’ (be it Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, or Maynard Keynes) sooner or later realizes that understanding economics is essential.” 

An immensely productive scholar, he was the sole recipient of the university’s Award for Excellence in Research in 1994. Are there any other scholars who have made important contributions to both the history of economics and econometrics? His early scholarship brought together a deep understanding of the roots of economic thinking and scholars like Marx, Marshall, Keynes, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, and Friedrich Hayek with an attempt to model and explain unemployment, wage rates, investment, macroeconomic fluctuations, the nature of money, and other economic forces – increasingly with an eye toward implementing central planning in a socialist economy. His 1993 book, Toward a New Socialism (co-authored with fellow Scotsman Paul Cockshott), offered a systemic theoretical defense of economic planning using non-circulating labor money to replace circulating currency and an Athenian-style participatory democracy.

In an ideal world, it might be argued, people would work mostly for the joy of the labor and the benefits that would go to the users of their products. This idea seems to have animated Cottrell’s most significant project in the second stage of his career. Although he continued research on the nature of capitalist and socialist markets, during the late 1990s, he began to develop an open-source statistical software package that could be used by his econometrics students and others. Gretl (Gnu Regression, Econometrics and Time-series Library) was released to the public on November 15, 2002, and the project snowballed, as Cottrell added collaborators from around the world. Always a work in progress, Gretl has been favorably reviewed in publications like the Journal of Applied Econometrics and the Journal of Statistical Software, where it is hailed as a “high-quality, feature-rich, and accurate econometrics package” that is “user-friendly” and “intuitive” – a “public resource for all economists around the world.” The “overall quality, free availability, and ease of use” have encouraged economists to use it in teaching and research.  It is now available in 20 languages and is especially valuable to students from poorer countries who cannot afford expensive commercial products. Cottrell’s Gretl has been the subject of multiple conferences and scores of YouTube videos – and there’s even a 500-page textbook on Using Gretl for Principles of Econometrics. This wasn’t Cottrell’s only effort to make useful software freely available.  Another project was to put out a step-by-step guide for using LaTeX on a Windows computer – a “shell” called EMTEX which was like a version of the software specific to Windows. In the words of his future colleague Koleman Strumpf; “He honestly saved me weeks of time, and like much that he does he did it out of a good heart rather than seeking financial compensation … for Allin just making the world a better place was the real payoff!”

Cottrell has presented his research in dozen countries (the U.S., USSR, Switzerland, the UK, Italy, Canada, France, Spain, Poland, Bolivia, Mexico, and Denmark). I wasn’t kidding when I said that he is an international superstar. 

And he has also built a treasured reputation as a fine teacher, colleague, and administrator here at Wake Forest. In the classroom, Cottrell has gained distinction as a soft-spoken model of clarity, erudition, and sheer brilliance. A student remarked to one of his colleagues: “That man can bend spoons with his mind.”  He served ably as chair of the Department of Economics for six years and was pivotal in helping to guide the College’s adoption of laptop computers for students, faculty, and staff. As a colleague, he is known for his vast knowledge and wide reading, his levelheadedness and calm demeanor, his unfailing kindness and whimsical smile. And faculty who are old enough to remember, will recall him as a member of the bluegrass band that entertained their families at the annual Labor Day picnic in the field near the Scales Fine Arts Center.