Vignettes from the Harold Demsetz Conference
By David Henderson
As a student of UCLA economist Harold Demsetz, I was invited to a conference in his honor. It occurred on Friday and Saturday. My travel and attendance there, plus my time spent on my Saturday lunch tribute to him, are the reason I haven’t blogged until now. Some of the talks were by people presenting papers that linked up with his work. Others were mainly appreciative talks about Harold and/or his work. My favorite “tribute” talks were by Harry DeAngelo of USC, Tom Hazlett of George Mason University, and me. But my favorite talk of all was Harold’s after-dinner talk Friday night that was full of reminiscences. Here are two:
Harold had taught at UCLA from 1960 to 1963 before going to the University of Chicago Business School. While he was at UCLA, he ran into Reuben Kessel from the Chicago B School. Reuben, who was interested in hiring Harold at Chicago, asked Harold, “Are you happy at UCLA.” Harold answered, “Make me unhappy.” Reuben and the U of C, of course, did.
Harold said that Reuben was the quintessential economist. Reuben liked restaurants that had lousy waiters because that meant they were more likely to put their money in the food and the chefs. For those of you who read “Marginal Revolution,” who does that sound like?
A third reminiscence was by UCLA law professor Mark Grady. Grady had been a law student at UCLA in the early 1970s and there was a violent antiwar demonstration on campus. [After he spoke, Grady and I were unable to pin down the exact year: It was before I arrived in September 1972 because there were no violent demonstrations after that.] Students were taking over buildings and disrupting classes and one of the classes they just happened to target was Harold’s Law and Economics workshop. Grady was a student in the class. Harold, said Grady, looked serene. One of the disruptive students yelled out that this was an economics class and economics was all about helping corporations. “That’s not true,” answered Demsetz calmly, “economics is about helping the consumer.” “Right on,” said the student and they all left. As Grady said, they probably thought Harold was a Marxist.
I asked a nice young lady, Skyler Roeshot, who is Ken Lehn’s daughter, to use my cell phone to video my talk. It came out well, but I shouldn’t have deferred to my audience’s request not to use the microphone. The volume is about 30% too low. If I figure out how to change that, I’ll put my talk on YouTube in segments and link to it or paste it in here. One highlight, though, which which I’ll end and with which I ended the talk. I didn’t write this part out but this is it almost word for word (except that I noticed this morning an historical inaccuracy in what I said and so I’m correcting it here.)
In 1978, my boss, Bill Meckling, got some money from George Stigler to finance young people going to the Mont Pelerin meetings in Hong Kong. Meckling chose me. At the meetings, there was a session in which various people reported on the state of liberty in their countries. Harold was the person chosen to talk about the United States. He tends to be a glass half full kind of person, which is one of his best qualities, and he highlighted two positive things that happened and one negative thing. The two positives were airline deregulation and Proposition 13, the property tax cut in California. He noted that Prop 13 was not the ideal tax cut but that it was, at least, a tax cut. But there was one big negative on the horizon. On the November ballot in California was the Briggs Initiative. This initiative, if passed, would make it illegal for homosexuals to teach in government schools. That, said Harold was an assault on freedom. I remembered this story about 15 years ago and wrote you my appreciation at the time. [I looked at Harold and he nodded that he remembered that.] Harold took a risk talking about this at a conference attended by a lot of conservatives. And, sure enough, there was some tittering in the audience. Harold went on, though, ignoring this, showing the classy person that he was and still is.
Three additional points:
1. One of the other heroes in the fight against the Briggs Initiative, which gloriously failed, was Ronald Reagan. He went so far as to write an op/ed against it at a time when he badly needed his conservative base for his run for the 1980 presidential nomination.
2. Liberty Fund sells a DVD in which the above-mentioned Mark Grady interviews Harold and gets commentary on Harold’s work from others.
3. Grady, in his talk, had the neatest definition of a constitution I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to get it wrong and so I’ll contact him to get it exact.