David R. Henderson  

Warren Nutter: A Reminiscence

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Waking this morning and seeing co-blogger Bryan's excellent post on Warren Nutter led me to recall his importance in my intellectual life. In academic year 1970-71, I took a year off after graduating from college (in Canada, we said "graduating from university") to study economics on my own. I had bought all the back issues of the Journal of Law and Economics, on the advice of Harold Demsetz, and spent four hours a day working my way through them, following up footnotes to other interesting articles and books. One of the articles that informed me the most was Nutter's piece in which he debunked the idea that Soviet economic growth was high. The article was, I think, "On Economic Size and Growth," Journal of Law and Economics, IX, 1966, pp. 163-188. The next year I went to the University of Western Ontario to do one year of advanced undergrad courses and one graduate course so that I could be more prepared in mainstream economics to go to graduate school in "the States." In a course there, I did a paper debunking Soviet growth in which I drew on work by Nutter, Paul Craig Roberts, and a few others. I no longer have the paper and all I remember is that I learned a lot and got a decent, but not spectacular, grade on it.

Two years after that, I was a summer intern at the Council of Economic Advisers under Herb Stein and I used some of my free time that summer to visit every economist, libertarian, or libertarian conservative I could think of who lived in D.C. and whom I found interesting. Nutter was on my list. He had just ended a stint at the Department of Defense and I visited him in his office at the American Enterprise Institute. The man was very likeable.

I also remember Milton Friedman, in a speech in the early 1990s--I think it was at a Cato conference in Mexico City where he introduced my speech, "A Humane Economist's Case for Drug Legalization"--telling a Warren Nutter story. Milton was making the case that, whatever else you think about marijuana, it was wrong to prevent people from taking it medically. He stated that when Warren was suffering from cancer, he found that marijuana helped and he, not being familiar with the underground economy, got it from some of his graduate students who were, shall we say, more familiar with that economy.

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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Kurbla writes:

Soviet growth of GDP (PPP)/ cap. 1910-1970 was impressive 300% compared to 210-230% for Western Europe and USA, especially because USSR had more wars, pro/counter-revolutions on its territory. Even if poor countries naturally progress faster due to externalities; or Soviets exploited Eastern Europe, growth in that period was $1500 => $6000, while world average was $1500 => $4000; EE growth in period of 1950-70 was $2000 => $5000, again better than world average $2000 => $4000. So, it seems that Soviet growth was relatively fast - not phenomenal, but fast. Until 1960's or 1970's. (All data from Wikipedia, 1990 dollars.)

Paul Gregory writes:

I never met Warren Nutter, but I have used his monumental study of Soviet Industrial Production over the years. In contrast to the published Soviet statistics of that era. Nutter's book was comprised of thousands of references and data sources. His data and assumptions were there for the enterprising reader. I think this study was the first to expose the exaggerated claims of official Soviet statistics. Another of Nutter's contributions was to mentor the publication (in English) of Eugene Zaleski's Stalinist Planning for Economic Growth, which, I think, best captured the reality of the Soviet planning system.

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