A Stigler Story
By David Henderson
And now for something completely different.
I ended my Wall Street Journal piece on Jean Tirole with the following paragraph:
If George Stigler were alive today, he would probably recognize, in Jean Tirole, a kindred spirit. In 1950 Stigler advocated breaking up U.S. Steel. In his 1988 memoirs he confessed, “I now marvel at my confidence at that time in discussing the proper way to run a steel company.” Mr. Tirole seems to share Stigler’s humility.
But a longtime friend emailed me the following:
I got a good laugh out of the statement that Tirole was a “kindred spirit” of fellow Nobelist George Stigler in that he shared “Stigler’s humility.” Huh? We both knew him: George Stigler shared Obama’s humility. Yeah, he admitted error, but (a) only long after he had made it and its nefarious effects had long since been felt, and (b) in out-of-the-way places like his autobiography where almost no one would see them. Milton was humble, Armen was humble, George was not humble.
I agree, but I note that the humble part of Stigler that I had in mind was his humility about using the government to restructure companies.
I almost e-mailed my friend with one of my favorite stories about Stigler’s lack of humility, but I decided it would be a good blog post instead. A couple of weeks ago, at a conference at Hoover in honor of the late Gary Becker, I shared the story with Gary’s widow, Guity Nashat, who has a great sense of humor. She got a kick out of it. I hope you do too.
A friend of mine who was a young researcher in Stigler’s Center for the Study of the Economy and the State in the late 1970s had his boss over for dinner one night. Stigler pontificated on various issues and people. One of the people he mentioned was Alan Greenspan. “It is a little known fact,” said Stigler, “that Alan Greenspan has a brother.” One fact, not only little known but actually not known at all to Stigler, was that my friend’s wife, when she had met him 5 years earlier, had been dating Alan Greenspan. She knew not only Alan but also his mother. She replied, “Yes, George, it’s so little known that even Alan’s mother doesn’t know it.”