Co-blogger Bryan's take on GMU professors blogging earlier today is one of my 20 favorites of his posts. I have a few things to add from my own experience. One is a shortened version of my own story of how I almost didn't become an economist and then did. This is an excerpt from "Hooked on Economics," Chapter 2 of my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:
After reading books and articles on economic freedom for about a year, I started thinking that not only was freedom highly desirable morally, but also that it was incredibly practical. I was hooked on economics.
One day I was arguing the merits of economic freedom with my favorite math professor, a British socialist named Robert Coates. He said, "Well, I admit that I can't answer your economic arguments, but if you're so confident that you're right, why don't you go over to the economics department and take a course there? I bet you they have good criticisms of your ideas."
That shut me up. "He's right," I thought. "All I've been doing is reading economists who strongly believe in the free market. Why not take a course from one of the interventionist economics professors and see what they have to say?" So the next year (in Canadian universities, most courses were year-long rather than semester-long), my last year of college, I signed up for an introductory economics course based on a textbook written by Paul Samuelson and Anthony Scott. (Scott, a Canadian economist at the University of British Columbia, supplied the sections dealing with Canadian institutions.)
The course was a profound disappointment. Neither the book nor the classes in which we tediously worked our way through the book addressed the issues that had come up in most of my discussions and debates with people. Did, for example, free economies tend to degenerate into monopolies? The issue wasn't directly addressed. Instead, the focus was on weird things like "perfect competition" in which every company produces exactly the same product as every other company in the industry, no company spends a cent on advertising because every buyer is assumed to be perfectly informed already, and all companies charge the same price to the penny. This didn't seem perfect to me at all. It just seemed boring. I later learned that this was the standard way economics was taught. It still is.
I distinctly remember one exception. Samuelson had a section discussing how futures markets worked--and he explained it beautifully. I had never thought about the issue, but Samuelson showed that when people think a drought is coming, the futures market works, without any government planning, to give people an incentive to store goods now for when they become more scarce later. In 1990, 21 years later, when I wanted to commission an article on futures markets for my book The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, I called Samuelson, told him that story, and asked him to write the article. He declined, but nicely. But other than some nice pithy quotes on various economic issues, Samuelson's text and the class using it was, for me, a bust.
If you had asked me at the time whether I wanted to become an economist, I would have said, "No way." The things they wrote and talked about were, with few exceptions, completely uninteresting to me and completely removed from my concerns and those of other people I knew. And I needed to figure out what to do for a living. Within a few months, I would graduate. I was about to receive some money from a modest life insurance policy that my brother, sister, and I had received after my mother's death, so I didn't need to figure it out immediately. But I wanted a plan. I had always been fascinated by airplanes and so I planned a career in the aviation industry. But a couple of days after my third flying lesson, something happened that gave me a new direction. That something was a visit from a professor I hadn't previously heard of, a University of Chicago economist named Harold Demsetz.
I'll retell the Demsetz story in a later post.
One other thought: The last couple of paragraphs of Bryan's post reminded me of one of my favorite dialogues in The Fountainhead. And Roark's thinking has been mine now for over 40 years. Here's the dialogue:
Dean (having just kicked Roark out of architecture school): "Do you mean to tell me that you're thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?"
Dean: "My dear fellow, who will let you?"
Roark: "That's not the point. The point is, who will stop me?" (italics added)
Finally, I'm posting this while on a flight from SFO to Milwaukee. Is life great or what? I guess if they start charging zero rather than the current $12.95 to get on-line, Tyler Cowen will see that as further evidence of stagnation. To see why it isn't, see my posts (here and here) on consumer surplus.