Caitlin Doughty on Death

What do you say when someone dies? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really learned how to talk about death. How to think about it. What to say to someone who’s recently bereaved? Just think about the language we do use. “Passed on.” “In a better place.” “Laid to eternal rest.” How about just “died”? The discomfort runs deep. Money doesn’t lie. And our aversion to death, especially in the United States, is big business. We pay for the body to be transported, embalmed, gussied up, and cremated, or perhaps buried in expensive caskets.

This is from Maria Konnikova, “How to Be Better at Death,” Freakonomics, February 3, 2021. It’s fascinating and informative throughout.

Parts of the interview reminded me of a book I read when I was about 17, a book titled Death, Here is Thy Sting. The sting was the high price of a casket, embalming, etc.

I chose to highlight the above passage because it relates to something I’ve followed. I never say that someone “passed” or “passed away.” It’s euphemistic and occasionally misleading. At pickleball a few months ago I was talking about my daughter having passed something or other. Someone who came in on the tail end and heard me saying that my daughter passed expressed her condolences. I quickly explained what I was saying.

I say what’s true: the person died. I got practice early on. My mother, who died of cancer on December 19, 1969, was bedridden at home from about mid-October on. (Actually, she spent her last 4 days in the hospital, connected to a bunch of tubes.) In early December, she dictated her obituary to either my sister or my brother. When she died, I called the Winnipeg Free Press to read the obituary over the phone. Here are two parts of the conversation:

David: On December 19, Norah Mary Henderson died.

Free Press: Uh, excuse me, what was that?

David: On December 19, Norah Mary Henderson died.

Free Press: Don’t you mean “passed away?”

David: No, I mean “died.”

Later, when I got to what would happen to her body, the conversation went as follows:

David: Her body will be donated to the University of Manitoba medical school.

Free Press: Don’t you mean “her remains?”

David: No, I mean “her body.”

The Free Press person writing it down was clearly uncomfortable. But they played it straight. I knew that if they didn’t, my mum (that’s the Canadian version of “mom” would have been pissed off.)

In December 2018, when I visited a funeral home in Toronto hours after discovering that my sister had died, I cut to the chase by saying to the employee: “I’m very sentimental about my sister; I have zero sentiment about a dead body.” I then went on to say that I wanted the cheapest cremation I could get.



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Appreciating Walter Williams


On December 2, just hours after teaching his last class at George Mason University, economist Walter Williams died. He was eighty-four. That same day, I wrote a short appreciation of Walter that led to something unprecedented in my twelve years of blogging: comments by dozens of people, almost none of whom I knew, all complimentary. Our blog, EconLog, is one of the best at weeding out nasty, abusive comments. This time, though, there was nothing to weed out.

It’s easy to see why because Walter was an attractive person in so many ways. He had an inquisitive mind, a powerful work ethic, incredible courage, a great sense of humor, a strong sense of justice, and an ability not just to teach economic understanding but also to sell economic freedom. He did so in hundreds of syndicated columns written over four decades. If you want to understand what was so compelling about the man, you could do no better than read his 2010 autobiography, Up from the Projects. But Walter would have been the first person to remind you that your time is your most valuable resource. So if you’re in a time crunch, read my article instead.

These are the opening two paragraphs of David R. Henderson, “Appreciating Walter Williams,” Defining Ideas, January 22, 2021.

Another excerpt about Walter’s mischievous but also courageous streak:

Walter showed courage and creativity, along with a mischievous streak a mile wide, as a young man dealing with racism. Some of the most impressive and humorous parts of his book are his stories of his time as an Army draftee, from 1959 to 1961, in Georgia and South Korea. At Fort Stewart in Georgia, Walter quickly learned that although the Army was formally desegregated, the best jobs went to white men. When he was assigned to an Army motor pool, he had to wash trucks and jeeps rather than working as a mechanic or mechanic’s helper. A sergeant who caught him reading on the job ordered him to paint a truck. Although Walter knew that the sergeant meant for him to paint the flat bed, he saw his opportunity. “The whole thing?” he asked. The sergeant answered “yes,” but regretted it. After Walter started painting the window and the tires, a lieutenant asked him what the [expletive deleted] he was doing. Walter writes, “I responded, in my best Southern Stepin Fetchit accent, ‘Boss, de sergeant told me to paint de whole truck; Ah’s just doin’ what he say.’ ”

Also, a note about Walter following the logic to wherever it leads:

Walter also followed economic analysis to sometimes surprising conclusions. My favorite example is a 1997 column titled “Extortion or Voluntary Exchange.” In it, he tells of a young woman, Autumn Jackson, who asked Bill Cosby for $40 million “in exchange for her silence about being his illegitimate daughter.” Jackson was convicted of extortion. But Walter points out that she simply offered an exchange that Cosby was free to reject. Walter notes that we should worry about extortion when people threaten violence. If we did, he argues, we would put our attention not on Ms. Jackson, but on the US Congress, which, with legislation, regularly threatens us with violence. He gives the example of Social Security and Medicare. If you don’t pay those taxes, he writes, they will threaten to take our property and/or put us in jail. If we resist, they will authorize their agents to use violence. If Autumn Jackson had offered Cosby such a deal, writes Walter, he would say, “Jail her for life!”

Read the whole thing.



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Bill Allen RIP

Last week, Don Boudreaux over at CafeHayek did a nice appreciation of William R. Allen, co-author, with Armen Alchian, of the excellent University Economics textbook. Allen died last week, only a few months before his 97th birthday.

Fortunately, Liberty Fund has published Universal Economics, edited by Jerry Jordan, an update of University Economics.

I knew Bill Allen slightly while I was a graduate student at UCLA (from 1972 to 1975), and my not getting to know him better was my failing, not his. I sat in on one of his classes and I noticed how resentful he was of the UCLA administration. I think that made me wary of dealing with him. Not that I favored the administration, but I didn’t know what the big deal was.

Bill Allen had a beautiful way with words. I highly recommend his thoughts about the economics profession and about UCLA’s distinctive brand on economics. Having read it, I now know what his big deal with the administration was. I’ve had enough experiences, and observed enough other people’s experiences, to know that when you take an unpopular stand on principle, you’ll find that people you expected to support you often don’t or, worse, even join the mob. Fortunately, my own experiences in that area have been relatively unscathing. But Bill Allen experienced it big-time, even to the point of having a bomb set up outside his office. He talks about it all, plus much else, in “A Life among the Econ, Particularly at UCLA,” Econ Journal Watch, September 2010.

An excerpt  from the EJW article about his rocky experience as department chairman:

Shortly later, in October, the Black Student Union uprising hit the department. Five BSU representatives visited me and demanded that I hire some black faculty, although they had no candidate in mind or intention of helping to find candidates with credentials other than the desired skin pigmentation. I made it forcefully explicit that the department would not recruit on the basis of race. The confrontation immediately spilled into the campus newspaper and the Los Angeles print and broadcast media. After a threatening telephone call at home, I bought a shotgun, and strung fine wire around the lawn to trip anyone storming the house. The Scovilles invited the Allens to move temporarily into the furnished apartment above their garage, but my stalwart wife, Fran, refused to be “run out of my home.” I was interviewed and discussed in various forums. The Academic Senate twice nearly censored me, and Chancellor Charles Young, who had succeeded Murphy, referred to me in supercilious manner in public. Soon after the war began, a bomb was placed at an entrance leading to the departmental offices, but it did not explode. I remarked in a television interview that the most conspicuous difference between my enemies and the Nazi hooligans of the 1930s was that the latter could make a usable bomb. Perhaps I came to appreciate in some small degree how Churchill felt in May 1940.

I remember in class his referring to the idea that “you can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, whether that horse be an old one or a young one.” I later learned that this was his reference to Charles Young.


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Thank you, Dr. Williams

Like many who have studied economics at George Mason University during the last forty years, I had the great privilege of studying price theory with Walter Williams. The class was very much taught in the UCLA price theory tradition of Armen Alchian. His personal history—growing up in a housing project in Philadelphia, serving in the army, fighting for civil rights, working his way from cab driver to economics professor, and his nearly fifty year marriage to a woman he was clearly deeply in love with—were also important in his teaching. Economics is about the real world and he’d never let you forget it.

His autobiography Up From The Projects and the short documentary film Suffer No Fools are both excellent windows into his thoughtfulness, courage, and kindness. And I say that having never met an economist who wasn’t also a bit prickly, and knowing very well that many who read this will likely know that side of him better than I.

Williams never shied away from tough ideas and delighted in challenging the preconceived notions of his students and his readers. His book The State Against Blacks, now in its third printing, is full of thoughtful economic insight, important history that should not be forgotten, and ideas that many will find uncomfortable. Getting uncomfortable when exploring the big questions is important exercise, regardless of what you ultimately decide to keep and what you decide to leave behind. He was so committed to this work that he worked right up to the last days we were lucky enough to have him with us here on the mortal plane.

Here are a few articles by Williams that I find challenging and informative. I make no claim to them being his best or most important—he was prolific enough to make that determination tricky, and there are many others in a better situation to make that call than I am anyway—but I believe they are a fair representation of his work and priorities.

  • Discrimination: The Law vs. Morality” (2003) explores the concepts of discrimination and prejudice, and what the state can and should be about such matters. His conclusion could be summed up as a kind of Hippocratic oath for economic policy: above all, governments need to stop interfering in ways that exacerbate discrimination.
  • Indeed, in a much earlier article entitled “Why The Poor Pay More: An Alternative Explanation,” Williams makes that exact point: “the first thing that researchers and policymakers must insure, when dealing with the problems of poverty, is that they do no harm. To insure against doing harm requires dispassionate analysis that avoids the mere characterization of behavior” (1973, p. 379). The main point of this article is that in focusing too much on observed outcomes around creditworthiness, the true struggles of those facing poverty and discrimination are obscured.
  • He pick up this issue again later in “False Civil Rights Vision and Contempt for Rule of Law.” This is a short, critical piece in which he discuss the importance of prioritizing equality of process over equality of outcome. As Williams writes, the levers that are available to us to manipulate an observe outcome may not have any relationship to the actual cause of an injustice. As such focus on outcomes rather than equality in rights and process “allows the true villains to go undiscovered and therefore unconfronted” (1991, p. 1782)
  • How Business Transcends Politics” (1987) addresses apartheid in South Africa, another case he studied in depth along with that of Jim Crow law and Civil Rights in the United States. He reminds us in this article that markets make racial discrimination costly, and that there are many examples of governments forcing people to behave in prejudiced ways for one political reason or another. In short, sometimes the solution is actually the problem.
  • In “The Argument for Free Markets: Morality vs. Efficiency” (1996), Williams lays out his argument in favor of a moral argument for free markets, lamenting the “invisible victims” of minimum wage and other interventionist policies who are overlooked both by advocates of those policies and those who focus exclusively on the efficiency of markets.

If you are so moved, I think reading one of these today—even and maybe especially if it makes you a little uncomfortable—would be an excellent tribute.


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Walter Williams RIP

I learned from Don Boudreaux this morning that Walter Williams died either this morning or last night. For those of you who don’t know, he was a long-time economics professor at George Mason University.

I’ll have more to say later but I want to give one appreciation.

Walter liked smoking and he also hated the TSA. Some years ago, the combination of no-smoking regs on planes and intrusive groping by the TSA caused him to vow never to fly by commercial airline again. When he received offers to give speeches  that were far enough away that driving was infeasible, he negotiated for a private airplane to take him there.

In February 2013 Armen Alchian died and there was a memorial service for Armen at UCLA in March. I arrived hours early because I didn’t want to take the chance on a later flight. (Flights between Monterey and LAX do not have a good on-time record.) One of the earliest people to arrive, as I tell here, was Walter Williams. Walter was an even bigger fan of Armen than I was.

When I heard Walter was there, I walked out to say hi and he was sitting in his rental car trying to figure out where to park. (This was UCLA, after all.)

“Walter,” I said, “I’m surprised to see you here. I’m sure no one paid for you to fly by private jet. You must have flown commercial.”

Walter smiled that beautiful smile and said, “I had to do it for Armen.”


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Sean Connery RIP

What’s a remembrance of Sean Connery doing on a site devoted to economics? Here’s what.

When I was between the ages of 12 and 14, my family–all 5 of us–would sometimes drive from Carman to Winnipeg (50 miles) on a cold Saturday morning. We would get there at about 11 a.m. and then split and go our separate ways. Then we would meet for dinner at a designated restaurant at about 5:30 p.m. and drive home.

In 1964, when I was 13, the thing I liked to do, besides going to Hudson’s Bay or Eaton’s and seeing things I couldn’t buy (not literally couldn’t, but if I bought one thing, I couldn’t buy anything else for a few months–I hadn’t heard of credit markets), was going to movies.

Enter Goldfinger.

For my 60 cents (if I remember correctly), I entered a wonderful world that was total fantasy. I don’t mean just the plot, which was absurd. What person invites all his partners in crime to show his next big scheme and then kills them all? Why do that?

No, the fantasy was the world of luxury: fast cars, great gadgets, travel around the world even by private jet, and beautiful women.

Contrast that with what I had. We lived in a house built in 1880 and bought by my father with cash for $9,300 in 1960. (When I sold the house in 1997, a neighbor commented that the curtains in the living room were the same ones that had been up when we bought it from the Doyles 37 years earlier.) It had 3 small bedrooms and one bathroom with a bathtub and no shower. The temperature on the day I saw the movie was probably somewhere between -15 degrees F and 20 degrees F. (Back then we didn’t use the metric system: curse you, Pierre Trudeau.) The furthest I had ever traveled was 20 miles into Ontario and 20 miles into North Dakota.

And gadgets? Fuhgetaboutit. It was a big deal when we got an electric toaster and my mother finally got an electric egg-beater.

So seeing an Alfa Romeo with an ejection seat? Wonderful. Seeing in the opening scene the wonderful weather in Florida? Beautiful.

That 2-hour fantasy world was unforgettable. And it kept me going through the LONG Canadian winter.


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RBG and the “Waypavers”

There have already been an extraordinary number of remembrances, celebrations, and criticisms written of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and work in the days since her passing. I’m grateful for her contributions to advancing gender equality in law, but I have no assessment of her overall judicial legacy to add to the outpouring. Instead, I’ll offer just a few thoughts about her success and why it means so much to so many people.

One question that fascinates me when I think about RBG is: what made her decide she could do it? When RBG started law school in 1956, women accounted for less than 3% of the legal profession (preface; this and all other page numbers refer to Ginsburg’s collection of writings, My Own Words). Further, she was a mother. At the time, being a woman in a demanding profession was unlikely enough, but being a mother and a professional was truly exceptional. Until the early 1950s, the majority of local school boards and clerical firms had “marriage bar” policies in place against the hiring and retention of married women, so heading off to law school with a family in tow was truly a venture into uncharted waters. This is around the same time when Elinor Ostrom—future Nobel Prize winner in economics—would have been splitting up with her first husband because he saw graduate coursework as incompatible with their life together (Tarko, p. 4).

She also credits two of her undergraduate professors, novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and constitutional scholar Robert Cushman, with teaching her the value of choosing words carefully and taking a principled stance (p. 20-1).The latter was deeply concerned about the impact McCarthyism was having on civil liberties. RBG’s engagement with this cause was her first experience with the idea of the lawyer as a defender of constitutional rights, an influence which would carry through into her work with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. The first brief RBG filed with the U.S. Supreme Court as a lawyer was in the 1971 case of Reed v. Reed, in which a mother had sued to be able to administer the estate of her deceased son. Idaho law had given explicit preference to the father since he was male, but the Supreme Court decided in favor of RBG’s argument that the Fourteenth Amendment did protect against gender discrimination in law (p. 115).Ginsburg credits her mother and her undergraduate teachers with enabling her “to take part in the effort to free our daughters and sons to achieve whatever their talents equipped them to accomplish, with no artificial barriers blocking their way” (preface). She credits her mother with encouraging her to be a lady, meaning, to always be civil; to be independent; and to love libraries and books. Ginsburg mentions the ambitious, literary “Jo” from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as a favorite find from those early days in the library (p. 4). I suspect if you took a poll of women in academics today, you’d find an awful lot of “Jo”s.

LOUISA M. ALCOTT / Public domain

RBG saw this work to advance equality as the “constitutional legacy” of our founding ideals: “The founding fathers rebelled against the patriarchal power of kings and the idea that political authority may legitimately rest on birth status. Their culture held them back from fully perceiving or acting upon ideals of human equality and dignity” (p. 231). Those interested in comparative economic systems may be interested to find Don Lavoie expressing a similar sentiment in his conclusion to National Economic Planning: What is Left?, in which he argues that it was the incompleteness of the founding father’s vision of a non-hierarchical liberal democracy that blinded them to the harm that slavery, inequality in rights, protectionism, and monopoly privileges would wind up causing to their government and their principles.

Metaphors like “breaking a glass ceiling” don’t really fit lives like RBGs. They suggest that there was an obvious way up and out, and it was only a matter of time before someone broke through. RBG herself used the term “waypaver” when talking about the women who had broken down earlier legal and professional barriers. It doesn’t roll off the tongue as smoothly as other descriptors, but it fits reality well. History didn’t have to move the direction that it did. Waypavers are willing to be first in line to take chances that others around them are either not willing or not able to. In so doing, they forever alter the expectations of those who come after them. By deciding the path of professional constitutional law was possible for her, Ginsburg made it easier for others to decide they were capable as well.

RBG was well aware of those who paved the way for her as well. For instance, she spoke on multiple occasions about Belva Lockwood, the first woman to gain admission to the U.S Supreme Court Bar, and the many obstacles she had overcome. Lockwood’s 1869 application to study law was rejected because she “would…distract the attention of the young men,” and then her degree was denied even after she successfully completed all coursework because it would “lessen the value of the men’s diplomas” (p. 66). Lockwood would go on to be the first woman to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and the first woman to run for President. Without Lockwood, would RBG have been able to be RBG? Without RBG, what future leaps would not be taken?

Overall, RBG’s life and success are a testament to the power of encouragement. The experiences and lessons we receive directly from parents and teachers matter, as do the lessons from history about those who paved the way before us. Waypavers like RBG feed that inkling of doubt: maybe what we thought was impossible is in fact possible.



Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.


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Stephen F. Williams RIP

One of my biggest regrets is that I never met Stephen F. Williams, a judge in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. He and I carried on a number of lively discussions on email starting in 2007. (It might have started a few years earlier.) I had planned to see him on a May trip to D.C. this year, but of course that trip was cancelled. And now he is gone. He died of COVID-19.

This evening I reread all of my emails with him and it made me realize how many things we discussed. The discussions were always good, even when we disagreed, and we often agreed. Also they often went more than one round each.

In recent years, we discussed income inequality, the pros and cons of impeaching Trump, Trump’s overall record, whether there was effectively a quid pro quo in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, net neutrality, and whether he should self-publish his latest book. He sometimes commented on various pieces he had seen by me and my reply led to further discussion.

There were also lighter topics: my telling him that at age 69, I planned to work another 10 years, his telling me that I should make it 20 more, and me saying it’s a deal.

We also talked on the phone a few times.

The way we got to know each other about 15 years ago is a little hazy. It was one of two ways, but either way it involved a draft of his 2006 book on the Russian economy pre-Communism. My wife, Rena Henderson, who edits economists, edited the book for Hoover Press. Either she asked his permission to share sections with me to help her understand some of the economics (she makes sure she doesn’t share her work with me because of potential conflicts of interest), or someone at Hoover Press asked me to look at it. Either way, I was impressed with his work.

Months after that I read a decision he had written for the D.C. Circuit and liked not only his decision and the reasoning that got him there, but also the clarity of his writing. So I wrote him a fan letter, and he responded positively. I don’t have the letter because my computer and back-up hard drive burned in my February 2007 fire. But I have all our correspondence since that time.

I’m still impressed that a man who was on arguably the second most important federal court in America put on no airs and let his intellectual curiosity be his dominant characteristic.




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