Friday , January 15 2021
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Walter Williams and Economics

Summary:
 "For 40 years Walter was the heart and soul of George Mason’s unique Department of Economics. Our department unapologetically resists the trend of teaching economics as if it’s a guide for social engineers. This resistance reflects Walter’s commitment to liberal individualism and his belief that ordinary men and women deserve, as his friend Thomas Sowell ...

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 "For 40 years Walter was the heart and soul of George Mason’s unique Department of Economics. Our department unapologetically resists the trend of teaching economics as if it’s a guide for social engineers. This resistance reflects Walter’s commitment to liberal individualism and his belief that ordinary men and women deserve, as his friend Thomas Sowell puts it, “elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’

My emphasis on the two best parts. This paragraph is from Don Boudreaux' WSJ oped for Walter Williams. The highlighted phrases (my emphasis) stuck out to me as a brilliant encapsulation of where economics research and practice has gone, as well as teaching, in the last few decades. A guide for social engineers, indeed. Most papers end up with "policy conclusions" that amount to intensely complex advice for all-powerful (yes) and all-knowing (ha) "policy-makers" aka social engineers. Economics was once more about how people searching for a little elbow room are empowered to help themselves and their neighbors. 

Walter Williams passed this week and Ed Lazear passed last week. I am not only saddened by their loss, but that stirring bits of  the Chicago - UCLA - George Mason economic philosophy seems to take place increasingly in obituaries.   

One tidbit

“What minimum wage laws do is lower the cost of, and hence subsidize, racial preference indulgence. After all, if an employer must pay the same wage no matter whom he hires, the cost of discriminating in favor of the people he prefers is cheaper.

It's not just theory, and Williams wrote extensively. It's not just employers, or discrimination per se. Minimum wages and unions were originally embraced to keep low-wage Black workers out of northern labor markets, as much because they would work for low wages as because they were Black. This sordid history is not well remembered among minimum wage and union advocates today. Minimum wages still privilege the dependable, well trained, and able to adapt to the employer's schedule, over the transient, the kids needing some time and acculturation to work, ex-cons, immigrants undocumented or with poor English skills, people needing flexible schedules and so on. This redistribution, rather than overall labor demand, strikes me as the great crime. All protection starts by reducing competition, and the easiest place to reduce competition is from the vulnerable and powerless. 

Marginal Revolution has a lovely remembrance and points to additional ones by Jayme Lemke David Henderson and (especially recommended) Thomas Sowell. Also Peter Boettke. Williams' intellectual trajectory, like that of Sowell, Thomas, Loury and others is interesting. Update: Even the New York Times does a good job. 

John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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