David R. Henderson  

A Knight Tale

Frank Knight's Case for Commun... Friedman, Galbraith, and Wrigh...

Knight rotated.jpg

In the picture above, I'm wearing the actual poker hat that Frank Knight wore when he worked on articles. Here' the tale of how that came to be.

In the Spring of 2002, I was teaching a microeconomics class to a group of students at the Naval Postgraduate School. It was a good group and a good class. The textbook we used, by the way, was Steven Landsburg's Micro text. It was excellent.

At the end of the quarter, one of the students, Tom Verry, who had obviously enjoyed the class, came by to see me. He told me that his great uncle had been an economist. I had heard stories about someone's uncle or cousin being an economist and I always asked where and who, and typically didn't recognize the name of the economist. I asked him where he had taught. "The University of Chicago," answered Tom.

I suddenly became more interested. "What was his name?" I asked.

Tom: Frank Knight.
David (catching breath): Yes, I know of him and almost met him. [When I had visited the University of Chicago in May 1970 I had gone up to his door and was about to knock, but I heard him in a very animated conversation, apparently on his phone. I stopped and walked away, probably one of the most bone-headed decisions I had made as a 19 year old.]
Tom: I've hesitated to mention him because I liked your class and I like free markets and I don't think you would like his views.
David: Let me guess. You think he was a Communist.
Tom: Yes.
David (reaching for my copy of his mimeographed "The Case for Communism" manuscript): And you think that because of a speech he gave titled the case for Communism from the standpoint of an ex-liberal.
Tom: Yes.
David: Well, you can relax. We talked a little in class about Milton Friedman. Milton, and another guy named George Stigler, were students of Knight's. Both went on to be effective advocates of economic freedom, especially Friedman. You might even be able to argue that we wouldn't have had as much deregulation and wouldn't have had the 1981 Reagan tax cut if not for your uncle Frank. [That might be a stretch, but I think a case could be made.]

Tom was very glad to hear that. His whole attitude to his uncle Frank changed.

A few years later, Tom sent me Frank Knight's poker hat in the mail.

Addendum: I asked Tom his permission to tell his story and I received this answer:

You certainly may. I consider it [and your introduction to microeconomics] a pivotal point in my learning about human behavior. I still use your lessons frequently. Maybe you can conclude your blog with a photo of you wearing Frank's green visor and complete the loop of how serendipitous the exchange was.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Mike Hammock writes:

I was curious about that sort of hat; I wondered what its purpose was. Wikipedia calls it a "green eyeshade", though it looks like yours is not green. It turns out "looking at tiny numbers hat" would be more accurate than "poker hat". It was worn to shield the eyes from harsh incandescent light. I had no idea. I wonder why it still survives as a "dealer's visor" for poker and other gambling.

Mike Hammock writes:

Oh, and here's the wikipedia link.

Ross Emmett writes:

I have not been in contact with the Verry family. Tom is related to Frank's second wife, Ethel. Perhaps you could send me his email address? I'd like to be in contact with the family. There is a recording of an interview with Ethel that Jerry Nordquist (Econ, Iowa) did. But that focused on Frank's time at Iowa before coming to Chicago.

Ethel was the Director of the Chicago Child Care Society, and known simply as Miss Verry. She was legal guardian for over 70,000 children during her time at the CCCCS.

Mark M writes:

Great story!

David Henderson writes:

@Ross Emmett,
Thanks for that info.
I emailed Tom a minute ago to get his permission to send you his email. My subjective probability on his saying yes is 0.9. His great uncle Frank would refer to that as risk and uncertainty, I believe. :-)
@Mike Hammock and Mark M,

Richard Ebeling writes:

When I was an undergraduate at California State University, Sacramento back in the 1970s, I had a professor named Steve Polkinghorn, who had studied at the University of Chicago and took Knight's history of economic thought course. When I asked him what it was liked, he replied, "It was the history of Frank Knight's thought"(!)

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