David R. Henderson  

My Retirement

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You need to read to the end to know the significance of this picture.

Today is my last official day at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey. After today, I will be an emeritus professor, with all the rights pertaining thereto. That means mainly I get to use the library, which, by the way, is very valuable.

I've enjoyed my 33 years there. That's almost exactly half my life. When I went there I figured that, on a scale of 1 to 10, it would be between 4 and 7. For most of the time, it was between 8 and 9, which is why I stayed.

The biggest draw was the students. They are almost all in the military, either in the United States or in other countries, including, sometimes, Pakistan. The median age is probably about 31. It was actually much easier to get them interested in economics than it was to get undergrads at Santa Clara U, the only place I taught economics to undergrads, interested. I had to work much harder to get the Santa Clara students interested: I succeeded, but I had to work hard.

My experience with teaching at NPS directly contradicted what I was told by the department chairman when I did my courtesy call on arriving there in August 1984. The previous chair had liked me a lot and had hired me even though, I later heard, there was a lot of opposition to my being hired. The new chair had replaced him a month or two before I got there.

His predecessor had hired me on a year to year basis with a handshake agreement that it would go 3 years. When I made my courtesy call, the new chairman gave me some tips about what to do in "your year here." So I knew that he had no intention of renewing. My wife was 5 months pregnant at the time and so I wasn't thrilled about almost immediately looking for a new job.

In my first conversation with the new chairman, he gave me two tips.

It's the second one that relates to teaching the students but I want to tell the first one too, because my response to it was key to my turning the chairman around on whether he wanted to renew me.

He said, "There are a lot of people on the faculty who didn't want you here. I don't need to tell you who they are. You'll figure that out pretty quickly when you run into them in the hallway and they try to trip you up."

Earlier on he had told me that if I had any questions at any time, I should feel free to ask.

I saw my opening. "Bill," I said, "You mentioned that there are people who didn't want me here and who will try to trip me up. I do have one question: are you one of them?"

He paused and then said, "No." "Good," I said, "that's good to know." A year later, he renewed me, and a year after that he supported me in going tenure track. Years later, when I told this story to a colleague in Organizational Behavior, she told me that what I had done is opened up a space in his brain for his answer to be "No." His answer at the time was probably "Yes," but, she said, most people don't want to think of themselves as liars and so by saying "No," he had to allow that it might really be "No." All I knew, at a gut level, was that that was the right question to ask.

His other tip related to teaching. He had read one of my articles in Fortune and, knowing that I was coming from Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers where I had been senior economist for health policy and senior economist for energy policy, he knew that my main interest was in domestic economic policy. He also, I think, had figured out that I was a libertarian. He said that if I tried talking about economic policy and tried to elicit the opinions of the students and engage them in discussion, I would get total silence. The students, he said, are professional military, and they are taught not to give their opinions. That seemed strange to me but I'm an empiricist at heart and I resolved to try my approach and see if it worked.

For some reason, I was not trusted to teach a course on my own at first and so was put in to co-teach a class with another economics professor. I'm guessing that he reported back that whatever their worries about my being an ideologue in class, there wasn't much to it. So the next quarter I was given my own class. Finally, l I would get to test the chairman's claim.

He was dead wrong. It was easier to engage the students in discussions about policy than it had been at Santa Clara. Each day I taught I would come and say to my wife, "Well, they sure haven't gone silent yet."

I've actually made their interest part of the pitch my first day of class. I tell them that many of them have seen more parts of the world than I have, that all of them have been in charge of way more people than I have, and that they've probably noticed things that they are curious about. Some of these things, I say, economics can answer. For example, if you've lived in Germany, have you noticed that very few houses and apartments have closets. If you've been to Guam (many of them have--I haven't), what do you notice about buildings in Guam? Sometimes I answer upfront. Other times, I leave them hanging.

Then I say, "To quote from one of my favorite movies, Pocahontas, you'll learn things you never knew you never knew."

A big part of what I teach them is the Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom. When former students contact me years later, they talk about those things and how they have helped them understand the world. Mike Ward, the new Chief of Staff for NPS, who arrived here last month, said in his first posted statement to the school that he was pleased to make it back here for the retirement of one of his favorite professors: me. He and I went to coffee this week and, sure enough, got talking about the Ten Pillars. Another of my favorite students, a civilian at NASA in Houston, when he found out I was retiring, wrote the following:

I wanted you to know that your class was one that still impacts me to this day. Since that time, I often look at the world through the lenses of the 10 Pillars of Wisdom, and I can say without a doubt that it has been a life-changing experience for me.

The thing I will miss most is being with students over 30 to 40 hours a quarter and seeing, for over 80% of them, the light bulb go on multiple times and with various degrees of intensity.

Sometime soon I'll reminisce a bit about my students' quick humor during class, which is icing on the cake.

About the picture: Terry Rea, the assistant to the Dean, whom I've gotten fond of over the years, put together a PowerPoint presentation showing some highlights of my career. The one at the top was my favorite of her pictures. My second favorite was one of my in an In' N' Out Burger hat. I don't know where she found it.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Scott Sumner writes:

Congratulations, and enjoy your retirement. Now you'll have more time for blogging.

And that was a pretty shrewd move, asking the chair if he was one of your opponents. I never would have thought of doing that.

Great post.

David R Henderson writes:

Thanks so much, Scott.
It’s amazing what someone can think of when he has moved to a higher-cost-of-living area at a time when his and his wife’s joint income will fall and a baby is on the way.

Socal Bill writes:

Congratulations! I was never an actual student of yours but reading you here on Econlog I've felt like one. Have learned much from you over the years and look forward to more of your posts. Best wishes!

Aaron writes:

Why don't Germany apartments have closets? Some sort of tax avoidance?

Phil writes:

Congrats on a good career (so far). Thanks for The Joy of Freedom and the posts at Econlog. Good luck in the next phase.

Lliam writes:

Congratulations, David. Try not to get bored in retirement!

Mike Hammock writes:

You've had a similar impact on many of us who read your blog or have read your books and articles. Of course, you don't actually see our light bulbs go on, so it's not as much fun for you.

David R Henderson writes:

Thanks, Socal Bill, Lliam, and Mike Hammock.
Yes. My understanding is that property taxes in Germany are based, at least in part, on the number of rooms, and closets are counted as rooms. So people don’t tend to build closets, but, instead, use armoires.

David R. Henderson writes:

P.S. Thanks, Phil.

Matthew Moore writes:

Congratulations on your retirement

Ross Emmett writes:

Through your contributions to econlog and your published writings, you've been an inspiration to me and many others. It's been a pleasure to get to know you more through Facebook also. Enjoy your retirement!

Gerald Dwyer writes:

This is a very nice essay. Congratulations. Now you can have a different kind of fun.

Pajser writes:

Congratulation on retirement and promotion. You radiate lots of benevolence and care, I'm sure your students like you.

David R Henderson writes:

@Ross Emmett,
Thanks so much. That’s especially nice, coming, as it does, from a Frank Knight scholar.
Thank you, Pajser.

Scott Sumner writes:

David, Yes, even tougher than moving to a high cost area just as one's daughter is starting college and one's wife is retiring. :)

Bill Workman writes:

The photo reminded me that my first exposure to your work was the Fortune Encyclopedia. I assigned readings from that volume in beginning economics courses. One term, a mother/daughter combo in my class liked the encyclopedia so much, they purchased a copy as a birthday present for their husband/father, as they figured he could benefit from some economics education.

I enjoy your articles and blog posts, and have benefited a great deal from your writings. Thanks.

The Original CC writes:

DH: Great post, and congrats. Why were so many people opposed to having you at NPS?

David R Henderson writes:

@Scott Sumner,
@Bill Workman,
That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing.
@The Original CC,
Thanks. Re your question. I don’t exactly know. The term I heard a few years later was that some of them feared I was a pamphleteer. I think that’s because I emphasized what the chairman at the time told me he liked about me: that I was passionate about writing for non-economist audiences, in Fortune and elsewhere.
But bit by bit, I won a majority over by tenure time. The pamphleteer charge might also have something to do with the presentation I gave. I was asked to teach a class instead of giving the standard paper. I had just finished writing a large part of a chapter in the Economic Report of the President. The chapter was our case against industrial policy. Almost no faculty attended. So I’m not sure if they judged me based on it. I remember one of the students coming up after my presentation and saying that he wasn’t used to faculty presenting such a strong viewpoint, but then he hastened to add that he liked it.

Greg G writes:

Congratulations David. The same qualities that allowed you to win over your tenure skeptics make you an effective advocate for the principles you believe in. People trust you. You obviously put a high value on fairness, consistency and directness. You are willing to admit your mistakes, generous with your intellectual opponents, and remarkably free of animosity even on the most controversial topics.

Not everyone is good at retirement but something makes me expect that you will be good at it. I hope this will mean more, not less, blogging for you.

Matthew writes:

I’m so happy to have met you through your class at NPS. I’ll keep the lessons I learned with me and I look forward to staying in touch. Congratulations on your retirement!

Safariman writes:

Never was in your class, but I was in a couple of seminars with you. Inspirational! Wish I had heard you before I taught economics!

Doug writes:

Enjoy your retirement - you certainly earned it!

David Gay writes:

Never a student but always a fan. Thanks!

Dale Courtney writes:


Congrats on your retirement.

Of all my NPS professors, you were the most influential on my life and the way I view everything.

Enjoy your “retirement”, though I doubt you’ll be in a rocking chair anywhere. :)

NPS, Class 1996

Tom West writes:

One of the fringe benefits of being a teacher is opportunity to make a significant difference in your students lives. And that difference rarely comes about as a result of the material alone.

If you've been a compelling blogger, I can only imagine that you were even more memorable when teaching in person.

How very fortunate for your students.

Congratulation on a job well done.

David R Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
Not everyone is good at retirement but something makes me expect that you will be good at it. I hope this will mean more, not less, blogging for you.
Thanks, Greg, and yes, I do plan to blog more, not necessarily in the sense of more posts, but in the sense of more-careful and more-researched posts.
And thanks for your other comments too.
Thank you, and I plan to keep in touch.
Thanks. If you’re willing, I would be curious to know which seminars.
@Doug and David Gay,
Thanks to you both.
@Dale Courtney,
Thanks much, Dale. And you’re right. If I’m in a rocking chair, it’s likely I’ll have my laptop on my lap.

David R Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
Thanks, Tom.

Jake writes:

Congratulations, Professor Henderson. Best of luck going forward.

Tom Jackson writes:

Congratulations, and I am selfishly pleased that the retirement of one of my favorite bloggers will not include his blogging.

Gene Laber writes:

While I have found your blog posts to be both interesting and informative, I looked forward to your Fortune articles well before I learned of your blog.

You refer to a post-retirement benefit of access to the library. On most campuses, a parking sticker is almost as valuable. Is that included?

c141nav writes:

Congrats on your retirement. Not a student, but I read your book -- one of my favorites. I didn't see a reference to 'loving your students' but I am sure that you did.

Stavros Krimizas writes:

Dr Henderson, congratulations on your retirement and all the great teaching you have offered.
Indeed, the "Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom" is the concept that organized my thoughts and gave me a solid basis for understanding the world.
I feel lucky and proud that I was in the roster of your students.

All the best.

ps: in case our gov "outsource" the positions of economy and development ministry or financial ministry, would you be interested? :)

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