David R. Henderson  

Armen Alchian: Teacher

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I've written between 45 and 50 op/eds in the Wall Street Journal but never before have I had the intense response--all positive, by the way--that I've had to my Wednesday piece on the late Armen Alchian. I heard from Alchian's students who studied under him, some as early as the mid-1960s; from people who learned economics from his and William R. Allen's textbook, University Economics; and from academics who learned from his academic articles. What comes across is that Alchian--whether in his classes, his textbook, or his academic articles--was, first and foremost, a teacher.

Some of the stories jogged my memory about ways in which he showed that when I studied under him at UCLA. I remember in the 1974-75 academic year, some of us were going on the market and getting serious looks from top schools. We were feeling our oats because at that time, UCLA was close to its peak reputation. This particular story I'm about to tell happened at one of our regular Friday afternoon coffee-and-doughtnut hours. One of us--I hope and think it wasn't I--said disdainfully that he couldn't imagine teaching at a Cal State school where you had to teach--gasp!--3 or 4 courses a semester. Alchian responded, gently, by the way, that that's not how he saw it. He said that we should take the best academic job we were offered and if that happened to be a Cal State or its equivalent, then, at least you got to teach.

This attitude reflected his humility. He never seemed to care whether he was touted the way Samuelson or Friedman were. To him, economics was a calling and we were all in this together, trying to figure things out. And I think that explains why one person who called me--and we talked for half an hour Friday night--who had Alchian for a class in the 1960s, had no idea that Alchian was so highly thought of in the profession. By the way, I think it is this humility, more than anything else, that accounts for his not getting the Nobel prize. He didn't push himself or make his own work front and center in conversations. I still remember the first day in class in 1972 when he had recently seen Friedman and Samuelson at a conference and spent a minute telling us what amazing economists they were and how much fun it was to watch them at the peak of their careers.

Although I think the Wall Street Journal editors did a fantastic job of deleting about 400 words from my bio, I want to quote one paragraph that I wish had remained:

Because of its literary quality and complexity, their text generally did not work with undergraduate or even M.B.A. classes. But its impact was out of all proportion to its sales. Many graduate students, particularly at UCLA, where Alchian began teaching in 1946, and at the University of Washington (where Alchian student Steven Cheung taught), learned their basic economics from this book [University Economics]. Some of the University of Washington students went on to write best-selling textbooks that made many of Alchian and Allen's insights more understandable to an undergraduate audience. Alchian and Allen's textbook was truly a public good, a good that created large benefits for which its creators could not charge. And while Alchian played the role of selfish cynic in his class, some of us who studied under him had the feeling that he put so much care and work into his low-selling text--and into his students--because of his concern for humanity.

A couple of quotes also from people who contacted me with their stories.

First, a federal judge who asked that his name and other identifiers not be mentioned:

I took his course, called "Law and Economics," though it was really intermediate micro, and learned probably more than in any other course I've ever taken.

Your review reminded me that it's been some time since I looked at his book with Bill Allen. I hope the answer is that I've completely internalized it. It is still definitely on my shelves.

In response to my question about whether what he learned from Alchian had influenced any of his decisions:
I would guess that it has; certainly the wording of some of them, but most likely the outcome as well. That said, I can't point to any particular one, but given its pervasive influence over my view of markets, some effect on outcome seems likely.

Second, a woman who took a special sequence from him in the late 1960s. This is my favorite but because she didn't respond to my request for permission to reprint, I've edited one part that might otherwise identify her:
In 1969 or 1970, Dr. Alchian offered an intensive 5 quarter course to UCLA undergraduates which would meet the requirements for a major in economics. It met 4 or 5 times a week and he personally taught 4 of the quarters. A Dr. Baird (I think) [DRH note: Bingo. It was Chuck Baird] taught the one quarter on macro. I was one of 20 or so students who took the course. I started UCLA as a psychology major with no perspective on economic theory or property rights. I came out of that course with a whole new vocabulary and a much heightened awareness of relationships between scarcity, choice, demand and how government laws can have unintended consequences. What I liked best about your piece was your description of the way Dr. Alchian used language rather than numbers. My son was an econ major at Princeton and he could not believe me when I told him I studied econ without equations. Above all I learned to approach factual analysis without value judgments.

Dr. Alchian wrote a recommendation for me to [one of the country's top 10 law schools], and I remain grateful to him for my three years there (and my husband who I met in law school). After facing him in the classroom on a daily basis, the law professors could inspire no fear.

After reading your essay, I pulled out my college copy of University Economics with fondness. I never saw Dr. Alchian after I graduated and could never thank him, so I guess I am thanking you instead.

This is quick and I'm off to my Sunday walk. But I think it gives a feel for Armen Alchian's passion for teaching.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (6 to date)
Socal Bill writes:

I did not know much of Armen Alchian until reading yours and other tributes to him. It is why I enjoy reading Econlog and other blogs as I try and enjoy grasping more knowledge of economics. Mr Alchian is just another treasure I will get to learn from.

BTW David, since you went to UCLA in the early 70's, did you go to the basketball games and did you know any of the players from those great teams? Just wondering.

Steve Z writes:

I'm guessing that the federal judge is Kozinski, given that he went to UCLA at about the right time, and his background. No need to publish this comment if I am right, I'm just commenting to revel in the joy of internet detective work.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Socal Bill,
It is why I enjoy reading Econlog and other blogs as I try and enjoy grasping more knowledge of economics.
Thanks.
BTW David, since you went to UCLA in the early 70's, did you go to the basketball games and did you know any of the players from those great teams?
I went to one or two games. You pretty much knew in advance who would win and I found the Ph.D. program so demanding that I worked during the games and put my notes down during timeouts and half times when the band played and the cheerleaders did their thing. The entertainment was pretty amazing for this prairie boy from Canada.
I met Walton in the elevator of Bunche Hall once or twice and I liked the respect he showed when he would run into a faculty member he knew. At the time I thought he was like Eddie Haskell but, looking back, I think that was my jealousy speaking and that he was the real deal. A friend of mine had an interesting interaction with Walton when he picked up Walton and his girl friend as they were hitchhiking on Westwood Blvd. Let's just say that both Walton and my friend were competing as alpha males.
I did grade a paper in a Labor Market course written by Keith "Smooth as Silk" Wilkes and I still remember his answer to a question on Rottenberg's article on the baseball players' labor market. But I have a strict rule against piercing the privacy of students who have not consented.
@Steve Z,
Good guess, but no. Your answer affirms that I have, so far, successfully hidden this judge's identity.

Tim Ozenne writes:

I was at UCLA from 1963 through 1972 (with a year at UW) and took my Ph.D. in '72. Bill Allen might call this the golden age at UCLA.
I took several courses from Alchian as a grad student, and they served me well over the years. Still, what I'll remember most is how he cared for people around him, despite his at time gruff exterior. And, as a T.A., I was so impressed that he reminded large lecture sessions of students how much they owed their parents.

Tim Ozenne writes:

I was at UCLA from 1963 through 1972 (with a year at UW) and took my Ph.D. in '72. Bill Allen might call this the golden age at UCLA.
I took several courses from Alchian as a grad student, and they served me well over the years. Still, what I'll remember most is how he cared for people around him, despite his at time gruff exterior. And, as a T.A., I was so impressed that he reminded large lecture sessions of students how much they owed their parents.

Regarding the Alchian and Allen text, I have interesting news. An outfit contacted me a while back to tell me that if they could get permission, they could reprint out-of-print texts. I jumped on that one and asked if they could do Exchange and Production.

Unfortunately, Prof. Alchian died in the interim, but Prof. Allen has given this company permission for them to reprint the books so I can use them in my class. For all those college professors out there who have wanted to use this book but could not, well, I have good news. And I will be using the book in the fall semester.

True story.

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