Dan Seligman, RIP
By David Henderson
I know this is a little late, but I was just surfing the web and found out that my mentor at Fortune magazine, Dan Seligman, died in January. I’m usually better than this at keeping in touch with friends who are sick but, on this one, I screwed up.
Dan was most well-known for his “Keeping Up” column in Fortune, which lasted, I think, over 20 years. Many people, including me, turned to it first when our Fortune came in the mail. In it, he had tightly reasoned, usually humorous, economically literate commentary on political economy. He had little concern about being thought of as politically incorrect.
Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite Keeping Up columns, dated April 2, 1984. It shows that combination of wit and reasoning mentioned above. To understand it completely, you must also understand that Paul Samuelson, at the time, was an avid tennis player. Here goes:
Friends, this is an ambitious item. In composing it we hope to persuade you that gambling is essentially the same as saving. Also that it has much in common with tennis. Finally, we hope to persuade eminent economist Paul A. Samuelson that he is not being fair to gambling in his textbook Economics or in a missive he recently dispatched to Mark Greenbaum of Albany, New York. We know about his letter to Mark because the Nobel laureate lateral-passed us a copy of the self-same epistle. His motive in so doing, we assume, was uncharitable: he wanted to make us feel bad for having penned certain critical words — the letter termed them “acidic” — about his textbook. Our own view is that Paul was treated no less alkaloidally than the median Keeping Up commentee.
As previously explained in this space (February 20), Economics bum-raps gambling on several different grounds, among which are that it creates no output and consists of “sterile transfers” between individuals. You could make an equivalent statement about tennis. This upscale sport is characterized mainly by sterile efforts to keep hitting a fuzz-covered optic yellow ball within certain well-defined although not always honestly reported parameters. Economists endeavoring to discern output creation in this activity have been regularly thwarted, yet they are able to live with the situation because they understand tennis to be recreational and therefore to have what is fondly known as “utility.” Why can’t Economics see that recreational gambling is similarly utile? And why, in his famous (starting now) letter to Greenbaum, is Samuelson escalating his case against gambling? Paul compares it to smoking and earnestly suggests to his Albany pen pal that the world might well be a better place if both addictions were effectively prohibited by government.
Soon, I’ll tell you what it was like to be edited by Dan and how I interpreted the experience to keep on writing for him.