My Work Continuage: A Confession
By David Henderson
I have a confession: I continued working even though I was told not to.
I was reminded of this by this article by Mckenna Dallmeyer, Texas Senior Campus Correspondent for Campus Reform. It’s titled “State auditor demands nearly $2k from Ole Miss prof who went on ‘illegal’ strike,” Campus Reform, December 14, 2020.
Here’s what happened. I was a visiting assistant professor at Santa Clara University from September 1980 to December 1981. In the spring quarter of 1981, there was a racial incident on campus. I don’t remember what it was, but I think it was someone writing something negative about black people in a place that was visible.
The powers that be decided to cancel classes for one day so that people could go to various “teach-ins” about racial discrimination or at least contemplate racial discrimination. I was sympathetic to the cause but I thought that cancelling classes was way too big an overreaction. Of course, that wasn’t my call to make: it was my employer’s. Which is why I’m calling this a confession. Am I proud of what I did? Yes. But it was a breach of a contract and I take contracts seriously. You’ll see below that I didn’t.
I was teaching 2 classes. One was an intermediate microeconomics class with over 30 students in it. The other was an elective: a Law and Economics class with about 13 or 14 students.
I wasn’t badly behind in the intermediate micro class. But in the Law and Economics class I was behind but for a good reason. The textbook for the class was Richard Posner’s An Economic Analysis of Law. I was a fan after a very quick and somewhat cursory reading and the person who had taught the class the previous year, Henry Demmert, had used it and liked it. (He was on leave in D.C., which is why I had been hired for a year.)
So what was the good reason we were behind? It was that in working our way through the chapters, the students (all undergrads, some not even econ majors) and I were finding lots of bad economics. (And no, I can’t tell you what the mistakes were: my marked up copy was destroyed in my 2007 fire.) What started as an upset early in the course, both to the students and me, turned out to be a crusade. It was exciting each day to see if the students had found the mistake in a particular chapter–and they often had. (I’m not saying there were mistakes in every chapter: I don’t recall.)
Parenthetically, I later found Jim Buchanan’s review of Posner’s book. The review was titled “Good Economics, Bad Law.” I didn’t feel qualified to judge the law but I was quite qualified to judge the economics. I would have titled my review “Occasionally Brilliant Economics with Occasional Errors that a Good Economics Undergrad Could Have Spotted.”
Anyway, when you start working your way carefully through each chapter, you go more slowly. Halfway through the course, I had already given up on covering the whole book, but I wanted to cover at least 80% of it. The class met twice a week and so taking a whole day off–and we were told explicitly not to do makeups–would lose a half week.
So I decided to take a risk. I went into the class, which I was running around a rectangular table, and announced that I was required to cancel the next class. The announcement had created a buzz on campus and so everyone knew why.
Then I said, “Here’s my problem. We’re so far behind and I don’t want to get further behind. I’m inclined to show up for the next class.”
Then I stopped. I looked around to see if anyone would initiate. One of my students who was really enthused about the class was Charley Hooper. He was an engineering major but he had taken my intro micro and was so enthused, and got an A, that I let him into the Law Econ class without his having taken the requisite Intermediate Micro class.
Charley said, “I’ll be here.” Then the person next to him said “I’m coming.” Then “I’ll be here.” Every single person in the room said he or she would make the next class.
It was like a story I had heard in high school from one of my teachers (I think it was my 9th grade English teacher, Harvey Rosen) about a military officer who asks for volunteers for a particularly dangerous mission. He has them in a long line and tells the men that he won’t put them on the spot and so he will turn his back and whoever wants to volunteer can step forward. He gives it a minute and turns back and sees that they’re all still in a long line, with no appearance that anyone had stepped forward. Crestfallen, he asks “None of you volunteered?” One of the men answers, “No, sir. We all volunteered.”
After the students had all volunteered to come, I said, “Ok, because the issue leading to this is a racial incident, and I’m against racism, I’ll spend the last 20 minutes of the next class laying out what economists have to say about the economics of discrimination.”
We had a great discussion at the end of the next class about how free markets give employers an incentive not to discriminate on racial grounds. I gave them a verbal version of Gary Becker’s model. And we were probably the only class that met that one day at Santa Clara University.