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
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.
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
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
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