David R. Henderson  

George Hilton, RIP

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On August 4, while I was on my vacation, my beloved transportation economics professor, George Hilton, died. Co-blogger Art Carden has rightly singled out one of his best articles in a post earlier today.

Here are some of my reminiscences of that colorful character.

I arrived at UCLA in September 1972 to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. We were advised generally not to do an overload but to focus on taking the classes that would be tested in the core exam. My fellow Canadian, Harry Watson, and I were in a hurry and wanted to take not only the core exam the next May but also a field exam in a specialty. I chose Industrial Organization (IO) and had the benefit of taking Sam Peltzman's 2-course sequence in IO. Harry took monetary theory.

But somehow we had heard about George Hilton. We learned very quickly, from body language and comments by other faculty, that he was not thought of as a star, but he had impressed Harry and me. If I recall correctly, our first encounter with him was that fall when he gave a seminar to faculty and Ph.D. students on his work on what a waste government spending on subways, including the recently built BART in San Francisco, was. He had a lot of funny lines delivered in his deadpan style, and Harry and I laughed uproariously. At times, we seemed to be the only ones laughing, which bothered us not at all. On that basis, and moving even further against our advisors' advice not to overload, we decided to take his transportation economics course, taught one night a week in the winter quarter. I remember going to class a number of evenings (Tuesday, I believe) and learning the truth about whether it rains in southern California.

The course was pitched to grad students and undergrad economics majors. So there were a lot of words and numbers, but few graphs and no equations. This meant that Harry and I had a comparative disadvantage: the undergrads were as good at memorizing as we were. Indeed, it's possible that we had an absolute disadvantage. I remember coming to class for the midterm and proudly asking two young attractive co-eds how many pounds of manure and urine a horse in NYC dropped daily, figuring I would stump them. "10.5," they chanted in unison, and I knew I was in trouble.

But so what? We learned a ton. We learned that even the proponents of BART in San Francisco, MARTA in Atlanta, and the METRO in Washington, D.C. were claiming that their subways would divert only about two years of secular growth in commuter traffic. We learned that streetcars in New York City saved New York from a huge and growing pollution problem--check out the 10.5 pounds above and do some multiplication. We learned that the Interstate Commerce Commission cartelized trucking. We learned that the Civil Aeronautics Board cartelized airlines. It's also from George that we got a positive view of work by the left-wing historian Gabriel Kolko, who himself died recently.

And all with that hilarious style and his classic expressions. Old horses that hauled cars were "fully depreciated." His comment on the banking cartel in Canada (he alleged) and the over expansion it had led to: "They have banks like we have gas stations." The issue of the Journal of Law and Economics that Art refers to was months late because the editors were behind. So, while Hilton covered the article in class, he didn't have a journal to send us to. He referred to co-author Ross Eckert of USC as going out in the hall every day to look for the mailman's delivery of the Journal. In a side discussion of drug legalization, Hilton said, "Of course, some people would be addicted. I'm addicted to Baskin-Robbins Thirty-One Flavor." On long-term consequences of drugs, he pointed out that one of main consequences of heroin use was constipation. My friend Harry remembers him saying that heroin sellers ought to be free to sell heroin in vending machines.

Harry and I lapped all this up, laughing uproariously when George belted these things out. I think I sensed in his eyes a twinkle of appreciation of our appreciation.

Another one I remember is George's comment when Harry and I expressed surprise that he ate Chinese food five times a week: "Chinese people eat Chinese food every day."

One evening George showed up a few minutes late for class. He explained that he had learned earlier that his mother had been hit by a car. When we asked him the next week how his mother was doing, he answered, deadpan: "Both the doctor and the lawyer are happy."

George was a real character--and a real economist.

UPDATE: I know that many readers of this blog don't read comments. I highly recommend that you make an exception and read the comment below by Susan Woodward, a highly accomplished economist who was also a close friend of George Hilton.


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CATEGORIES: Obituaries , Regulation



COMMENTS (6 to date)

Hilton did yeoman work debunking the Bradford Snell concocted (along with Nader's Raiders) Great Conspiracy to Destroy the Streetcars. Unfortunately he, and others, haven't been able to drive a stake through its heart yet.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan,
Thanks so much for that reminder. George DID do that work you mention and told us all about it in class. I remember one story he told about testifying before a U.S. Senator who asked him if he denied that GM had had the streetcar tracks torn up in LA. Hilton answered not only that he denied it but also that the tracks at that point weren’t even torn up.

harokf writes:

Steven Cheung brags of sitting in the Alchian and Hirshleifer seminars at UCLA multiple times. I am so happy that I had the good fortune to attend George Hilton's seminar for several years. Professor Hilton is arguably the closest that UCLA had to Ronald Coase (apologies to my namesake Demsetz). Indeed, I recall an anecdote that Hilton once mentioned about his ICC paper in the JL&E. Hilton said that Coase made him add both text AND footnotes, so as to better illustrate the reality of his premise. Many years later, I shared a similar experience of having Coase as a motivating editor. I once proposed to Hilton that we write an NSF grant that would capture his 3 loves: trains, beer and baseball. I lament that I did not follow through

Bob Johnson writes:

Coincidentally, another great libertarian with the same initials, George Hansen, died this week.

http://www.alaskalibertarian.com/docs/Reading%20List.pdf

http://www.chaospark.com/politics/reid53.htm

The official libertarian party reading list from the 90's includes Hilton's "Federal Transit Subsidies."

David R. Henderson writes:

@harokf,
I think you meant to call yourself Harold, given that you said your namesake is Harold Demsetz. My guess is that you fat fingered (or shifted over) the keys because the k is by the l and f is by the d.
I didn’t know about the beer part. One thing I loved about George is that despite his love of trains, he was a strong opponent of subsidizing them.
@Bob Johnson,
Yes, his Federal Transit Subsidies, an AEI publication if I’m not mistaken, was excellent.

Susan Woodward writes:

George Hilton was a great fellow, wonderful company, and so enthusiastic about so many things, his best quality. Alas, I never took a class from him, but we were colleagues and neighbors in the early 1980s. Many evenings we went for a walk together, generally the “two synagogue walk” down Wilshire Boulevard, from Westwood to Beverly Glen and back, about 45 minutes. Then we would have a beer. I think I learned most of what he taught in his courses and what was in his books in these walks.
George’s specific enthusiasms were1) trains, boats, and other forms of transportation but not cars, 2) beer, 3) baseball, and 4) Gilbert & Sullivan. He had the best decorated home of any non-gay man I have ever met. All his furniture was Swedish modern (as of 1970 or so), kind of austere. But the furniture was hardly noticed given the decorations, all of which had something to do with his specific enthusiasms. Neon beer signs (he must have had 30 on display in various places, including his home office), tap knobs, arrangements of (unopened) beer cans on shelves he had specially made, oil paintings he commissioned of his heroes (Warren Spahn above the fireplace, Sir Arthur Sullivan on the adjacent wall), the downstairs powder room was fitted out as a restroom on the QE II (no, not quantitative easing) with the linen towels, soap dish, little signs, and more, and all sorts of memorabilia (well, it had some trainanalia too, such as a sign that instructed people not to flush the toilet while the train was standing in the station). All this stuff was very artistically arranged, what an eye! Not many people can place neon beer signs and oil portraits together so that they look good, but these did.
His license plate for his car read “SOX 06”. He made some good friends who saw that plate, appreciated it, and lay in wait for him to return to meet the owner.
George adored his cat, Glinda. She was a Maine coon cat, grey with white underbelly and paws, green eyes, and a sweet creature. He used to say that consumption oozed out all over the room with the opening of every can of cat food. I looked after Glinda many times when George was away, and she was always a pleasure.
George was a delight to entertain, a fine guest at any dinner party. He was a good eater. He claimed to be allergic to garlic, but if I didn’t tell him there was garlic in the food, he ate it enthusiastically anyway. George could always be rustled up for an expedition downtown for Chinese food (which also nearly always has garlic in it) of any kind, Cantonese, Chiu Chow, Szechuan, he was an omnivore. Armen Alchian was very fond of George too, and when the two of them were in any group, there was always extra laughing. It was a source of great satisfaction to George to have the Interstate Commerce Commission abolished in 1995, after he had railed against it for so many years.
George used to have a substantial party once a year, always with some obscure purpose, such as the 200th anniversary of the commercial introduction of canned beer. Harold Mulherin was always present at these parties, and always “looked like an Irishman” according to George. George admired Harold’s ladykiller looks and festive attire.
The last time I saw George was at his 80th birthday party in 2005 or so. He had married Connie, retired, and moved to Ellicott City, MD in 1992, and was then living there in 2005. He seemed to be still enjoying life, but was concerned because Connie was ill. Connie had been a girlfriend when he was in college, then married the other guy, had four kids, was widowed, then married George. George had great photos of the two of them when they were 20 (1945?), sitting and having a beer, then in 1992, also sitting and having a beer, both of them clearly the same people. George didn’t even have much less hair in the later photo.
Sometime after that, George’s Christmas letter (George never wrote a sappy Christmas letter!) announced that this would be his last Christmas letter. This was after Connie had died, and George was living in some sort of old folks home. It seemed an odd gesture, but perhaps less odd for George. I was never able to reach George after this, and thus never spoke to him when Jack, or Earl, or Armen died. I still miss George, he was a great buddy, really superb company.

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