The Moral Vision of a Blind Economist
By David Henderson
That’s the title that Regulation gave my piece on Walter Oi. [I had given it the title “An Economist of Character Who Was a Real Character.] It appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Regulation. I had already written a post on Walter two days after he died and a piece for Hoover’s Defining Ideas. This is an expanded piece for Regulation that covers some of the same issues–his role in helping end the draft, obviously–plus a number of other issues not covered in the other two.
One of the things I appreciated most about Walter was his sense of humor and the twinkle in his eyes. I know that latter sounds strange, given that he was blind, but that’s what it seemed like when he was telling a joke; probably it was a twinkle around his eyes and the way his mouth moved. Here’s an excerpt about his quick wit:
Walter was a real character. I remember my job interview at Rochester in February 1975. I had already entered the room where I was to give my presentation based on my in-progress dissertation and was arranging my notes. The seminars there were attended not just by faculty but also by Ph.D. students. I looked up and saw Walter enter with his guide dog leading the way. Somehow the door to the seminar room, which had been propped open, came slamming closed and caught Walter, completely unaware, on the behind. Without losing a beat, Walter said, “The grades are going up [i.e., being increased].”
Walter was an active and positive participant in my seminar. In my dissertation, which was on coal mine safety legislation, I discussed the United Mine Workers union’s intense lobbying for the legislation and I pointed out that one main effect of the legislation was to close down small non-union mines, a result that the UMW would like. Richard Thaler, then a young faculty member, said that I would need to specify what the UMW was maximizing. Are they, he asked, maximizing per worker pay? “I don’t think so,” I responded. “If they were, then the number of people in the union would be one.” I was picturing a downward-sloping demand curve so that the maximum per-worker pay would be at a wage at which one employer wanted one worker. Walter got the joke immediately and laughed out loud.