David R. Henderson  

Happy Birthday, Leland Yeager

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A regular reader of Econlog told me that while he likes my obituaries of famous economists, it would be nice to pay tribute to older accomplished economists while they're still alive.

Here is my first.

Yesterday was Leland Yeager's 90th birthday. At Free Banking, there are informative and affectionate tributes to Leland from economists Thomas Willett, David Tuerck, Roger Koppl, Warren Coates, Ken Elzinga, Jim Dorn, Robert Greenfield, and Kurt Schuler.

The site also links to appreciations by Bill Woolsey and Lars Christensen.

I won't try to repeat their comments: most of them knew his monetary work better than I.

But I did have the good fortune of taking a class from him when he was visiting at UCLA and I was in my last year there, working on my dissertation. I've forgotten the name of the class, but in it we read more-philosophical works by economists. A bunch of the more-libertarian students at UCLA took it and we all became fans. If I recall correctly, I think we invited him out for dinner after one class and he accepted. That was something we never did with our other UCLA professors.

I remember clearly one moment in class when we were discussing the idea of having strong ideological views and its effect on one's work as an economist. "That has one good effect and one bad effect," he said. "What would they be?"

I answered: "I think the good effect is that because you're passionate, you're motivated in your work. The bad effect is that you might have trouble accepting conclusions that conflict with your ideological views." I had been struggling with this at the time.

"That's exactly my view," he answered. We smiled at each other as we realized how alike we were, at least in that respect.

One of my books that escaped my fire in 2007 is my autographed copy of his 1966 classic, International Monetary Relations. It is beautifully written, which means it is beautifully argued. Just paging through it now, I see how many pages I've marked up of his Chapter 7, "Balance-of-payments Adjustments by Direct Exchange Controls." It's a wonderful mix of hardheaded reasoning and anecdotes. In laying out how exchange controls necessarily lead to government officials choosing what people may buy, he writes:

Official attempts to lay down distinctions between luxuries and necessities sometimes become ridiculous. At one time the Norwegian government restricted purchases of bathtubs to persons whose doctors had certified their need for one. Sir Stafford Cripps, during his tenure at the British Exchequer, was once questioned in the House of Commons about the possibility of allowing imports of French cheese; he replied that only "serious cheese" could be permitted.

COMMENTS (4 to date)
Don Boudreaux writes:

Nicely done, David.

As a student I was fortunate to have an unusually large number of truly excellent classroom teachers. These include Fritz Machlup, Israel Kirzner, Mario Rizzo, Bob Ekelund, and Roger Garrison in economics and Saul Levmore, Robert Scott, and Dan Meador in law. None, though, were better than Leland Yeager (who taught me two quarters of macro, as well as a course in Economics and Philosophy), and I dare say that few - even of these great teachers -were quite as consistently excellent as him.

ThomasH writes:


Discussion of McKinnon and Yeagar (and Machlup, Don) are reminding me of just how long ago I was in Grad School! :>) But not long enough to remember when the positions they argued against were commonly accepted among economists.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Don Boudreaux,
Ah-hah! “Economics and Philosophy.” That’s the name of the special course he put together at UCLA. Much as I loved many of the UCLA faculty, most of them were pretty hostile, or at least indifferent, to philosophy, which is why Yeager’s course was a breath of fresh air.

Jeff writes:

The "serious cheese" remark puts me in mind of Linus van Pelt in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" trying to find a really sincere pumpkin patch.

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