On August 4, while I was on my vacation, my beloved transportation economics professor, George Hilton, died. Co-blogger Art Carden has rightly singled out one of his best articles in a post earlier today.

Here are some of my reminiscences of that colorful character.

I arrived at UCLA in September 1972 to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. We were advised generally not to do an overload but to focus on taking the classes that would be tested in the core exam. My fellow Canadian, Harry Watson, and I were in a hurry and wanted to take not only the core exam the next May but also a field exam in a specialty. I chose Industrial Organization (IO) and had the benefit of taking Sam Peltzman’s 2-course sequence in IO. Harry took monetary theory.

But somehow we had heard about George Hilton. We learned very quickly, from body language and comments by other faculty, that he was not thought of as a star, but he had impressed Harry and me. If I recall correctly, our first encounter with him was that fall when he gave a seminar to faculty and Ph.D. students on his work on what a waste government spending on subways, including the recently built BART in San Francisco, was. He had a lot of funny lines delivered in his deadpan style, and Harry and I laughed uproariously. At times, we seemed to be the only ones laughing, which bothered us not at all. On that basis, and moving even further against our advisors’ advice not to overload, we decided to take his transportation economics course, taught one night a week in the winter quarter. I remember going to class a number of evenings (Tuesday, I believe) and learning the truth about whether it rains in southern California.

The course was pitched to grad students and undergrad economics majors. So there were a lot of words and numbers, but few graphs and no equations. This meant that Harry and I had a comparative disadvantage: the undergrads were as good at memorizing as we were. Indeed, it’s possible that we had an absolute disadvantage. I remember coming to class for the midterm and proudly asking two young attractive co-eds how many pounds of manure and urine a horse in NYC dropped daily, figuring I would stump them. “10.5,” they chanted in unison, and I knew I was in trouble.

But so what? We learned a ton. We learned that even the proponents of BART in San Francisco, MARTA in Atlanta, and the METRO in Washington, D.C. were claiming that their subways would divert only about two years of secular growth in commuter traffic. We learned that streetcars in New York City saved New York from a huge and growing pollution problem–check out the 10.5 pounds above and do some multiplication. We learned that the Interstate Commerce Commission cartelized trucking. We learned that the Civil Aeronautics Board cartelized airlines. It’s also from George that we got a positive view of work by the left-wing historian Gabriel Kolko, who himself died recently.

And all with that hilarious style and his classic expressions. Old horses that hauled cars were “fully depreciated.” His comment on the banking cartel in Canada (he alleged) and the over expansion it had led to: “They have banks like we have gas stations.” The issue of the Journal of Law and Economics that Art refers to was months late because the editors were behind. So, while Hilton covered the article in class, he didn’t have a journal to send us to. He referred to co-author Ross Eckert of USC as going out in the hall every day to look for the mailman’s delivery of the Journal. In a side discussion of drug legalization, Hilton said, “Of course, some people would be addicted. I’m addicted to Baskin-Robbins Thirty-One Flavor.” On long-term consequences of drugs, he pointed out that one of main consequences of heroin use was constipation. My friend Harry remembers him saying that heroin sellers ought to be free to sell heroin in vending machines.

Harry and I lapped all this up, laughing uproariously when George belted these things out. I think I sensed in his eyes a twinkle of appreciation of our appreciation.

Another one I remember is George’s comment when Harry and I expressed surprise that he ate Chinese food five times a week: “Chinese people eat Chinese food every day.”

One evening George showed up a few minutes late for class. He explained that he had learned earlier that his mother had been hit by a car. When we asked him the next week how his mother was doing, he answered, deadpan: “Both the doctor and the lawyer are happy.”

George was a real character–and a real economist.

UPDATE: I know that many readers of this blog don’t read comments. I highly recommend that you make an exception and read the comment below by Susan Woodward, a highly accomplished economist who was also a close friend of George Hilton.