I’ve been working with Steve Globerman on a short book on the UCLA School of Economics. It will be published by the Fraser Institute in Canada. Of course we highlight the work of Armen Alchian, Harold Demsetz, Sam Peltzman, and a few others.
I was thinking today of someone we don’t highlight because he didn’t make a large contribution to the academic literature. But he was, and is, a first-rate economist and a master teacher. Thinking back to my first quarter at UCLA, I realize that he was second only to Armen Alchian in teaching me economics. It’s a kind of a funny story, so I’ll tell it here.
I arrived at UCLA, coming down from Canada, in September 1972. I did a courtesy call to various members of the economics faculty. One person I had to get a signature from was Axel Leijonhufvud. I got an unexpected compliment. He said that when he and his colleagues were looking over the incoming class, I was one of the ones they were excited about. And his body language supported his statement: he rubbed his hands together with glee.
I was being paid $440 a month for 9 months for 2 years to be a teaching assistant and my in-state and out-of-state tuition were covered for the first two years also. I had learned to stretch a small amount of money over many months and so, in my view, I had hit the jackpot. In return, I was a teaching assistant. I had to show up for a few hours a week to teach/tutor breakout sessions for the large classes and I also had to grade for the professors for 40 hours a quarter.
Because of Axel’s reaction to me, I started thinking, far too early, that I was hot you-know-what. So when I made the courtesy call to Chuck Baird, the professor whose intro macro class I would be TAing for, I told him that I would drop in from time to time to his class to see what he was doing. In my view, I already knew basic macro and so didn’t need to attend his class regularly.
Wrong strategy. Chuck made it clear in no uncertain terms that I would attend every class. I went away disappointed but not angry.
By the end of his first hour of class the next week, I was no longer disappointed but, instead, eagerly looking forward to future classes.
What happened to cause this? One main thing. Chuck told his class of about 150 to 200 students that he spoke fast and covered lots of ground, as many of them knew if they had taken him for the introductory micro course. So, he said, your best strategy is to plug in a cassette recorder at the front of the room and record the lecture so that in revising your notes, you can fill in any gaps.
Some of you, he said, might not yet have a tape recorder. They’re priced at about $30 and some of you might say that you can’t afford to spend $30. What’s the answer to that objection?
“What is the answer?” I asked myself, not having a clue.
About 20 hands went up. He called on one of them, apparently randomly. The student said:
Learning economics well raises your human capital, your future earning power. Thirty dollars is rounding error on the increment in the present value of future earnings that you will get from this course.
Holy cow, I thought. That’s right.
And I think I can say, though my memory is hazy, that I never missed a class. I learned a fair amount of micro and a ton of macro.