SFU in the Late 70s, Early 80s


The great economic departments of the world always seem to be great, regardless of who is on the faculty: there's a small variance and high average.  At most universities, however, there is a large variance in faculty with a lower average quality.  The
"quality" and "experience" one has then depends on which group of faculty one experiences.  Those at the top end of the distribution, can still make a great small little department ... for a time.

Simon Fraser, during the late 70s and early 80s was a place full of great characters in their prime, and I was lucky enough to have a great draw in the teacher lottery.

  Art DeVany was only at SFU for a couple of years, and only taught one undergraduate course in the fall of 1980. I took that course, and my life was never the same.   Somewhere around October of that year I had an economic epiphany, and just started thinking like an economist.  Art was a very mathematical economist, but he never used math in class. So his classes had the rigor of mathematical thought, but were expressed verbally with a few graphs. I practically hanged on every one. Art was very fit, and after he retired he literally became world famous promoting his views on fitness and diet.  He eventually published his ideas in "Evolutionary Fitness."   His views on those dimensions are great and effective as well.


   Chris Hall.   He showed up in 1981, of all things to teach undergraduate statistics in the Economics department.  It was a disaster.   Perhaps because the department was contractually stuck with him for a couple of years, or more likely because John Chant and Tom Borcherding recognized his economic genius, he landed up teaching honors price theory.  By 1983/84 he was gone, off to Hong Kong.   He had a crazy mind that was relentless in coming up with economic ideas and ways of testing them.  Many people described him as Steven Cheung cubed.  I took honors price theory from him in the spring of 1982.  On the midterm he asked the question "what are transaction costs?"   I gave an answer and he gave me zero points for it.  So I asked him "well, what are transaction costs?"  "I don't know," was his reply.  "I just know your answer is wrong."  Well, that obviously set me on a path for the next few years.  Later in the fall of 1982 I took a "topics" course with Chris.  There was him, Clyde Reed, a phd student, and me.   I wrote my differential tax paper in that course.  Chris later encouraged me to submit it to the graduate paper prize at Economic Inquiry, and surprisingly I won. It would also be my first publication.  In the spring of 1983 I sat in on his graduate price theory class.  So, in the period of one year he had a huge influence on my thinking.   In many ways, my book "The Institutional Revolution" has its roots in Chris's classes.  This picture was taken at Yoram's 2014 retirement party.

  I met Tom Borcherding in the fall of 1982, when I took my first graduate micro class.  In many ways, he was the opposite of Art DeVany. He was all over the map, lacked in mathematical skills, probably never exercised a day in his life, and had  a very "colorful" vocabulary.  I used to love getting him angry in class because he would just turn purple. But he also loved getting angry, and he respected me for doing it and he became a bit of a mentor for me.  Throughout my time in graduate school and my early days as a professor he was always interested in what I was up to, and was always introducing me to various people in the profession.  He was a great letter writer, and he loved talking on the phone.  He passed away of a heart attack, Feb. 2014.

In Feb. of 2014 a number of SFU retired faculty who were around at that time gathered at  a local pub to remember Tom.  Given they were all retired, the event started at 3:30 and ended at 5:30. Here's the group.



From left to right we have: Mike Roberts (geography and family friend), Clyde Reed, Herb Grubel, James Dean, John Richards, Jack Knetch, me, Rob Grauer, and John Chant.

John Chant organized this event, and little did he realize that this was probably only the second time in history that my MA committee was together.  John was my supervisor, Clyde my second, and John Richards the external examiner.
John had read my project a few times, and took me to the faculty club before my defense. Given the extreme arrogance I had at the time, I made the remark (which John has never forgotten) "I hope this isn't a typical defense where everyone is reluctant to ask questions."  John just nodded.

When we got to the room for the defense, I thought I'd pull one over on Clyde.  I was convinced he had not read my work, and so rather than presenting my research I said (and I can't believe I did this) "I'm not going to present my results, I'm just going to answer questions."  Unfortunately for me, John Richards was the first to go ... and he had a lot of questions.
Doubly unfortunate for me, Clyde had read my stuff, and easily picked up where JR had left off.  JC on the other hand, felt an obligation to pick up where our lunch had left off and decided to grill me on everything he could come up with.  This went on for an hour and a half.  The typical defense was about 20 min.  I was exhausted. But it didn't end there, John C, Clyde, and I went back to John's office and I got grilled for another hour and a half.  As I drove home that night it dawned on me:  "I wonder if I passed?"  I couldn't remember. 
The lesson was not lost, at least. When I defended my phd thesis I was extremely polite, didn't argue with anyone, made a nice little presentation vague enough not to encourage questions, and was in and out in about 10 minutes!

I never took a course from Herb Grubel, who was the star of the department in the 1970s. But that was more a matter of scheduling.  I did TA for him once and enjoyed his missionary approach to economics. Later, when I joined the faculty he was very kind and supportive of me.  He left as a member of Parliament in 1994, and as we moved to a same building at that time I managed to get his office.  When he returned from Ottawa I think he had forgotten about the office and retired soon afterwards.  As a result, I'm still in the nice corner!

I didn't take any courses from James Dean or Rob Grauer either.  Both became friends after I joined the faculty.  Ironically, I did take a course from Jack who later left our department when I arrived.  He had an assignment for his class to "write an original paper."  I'd never been given that freedom before, and I loved getting my hands dirty. In many ways, that was the beginning of my writing career.  Missing from the group is Larry Boland.

They were an eclectic group, and they didn't always get along.  But for me they provided a great environment for learning, and I'll always be grateful.