David N. Laband
Professor and Head
Department of Economics
James M. Buchanan Outside The Classroom: A Former Student=s Perspective
There is a quaint expression that runs something like, Adon=t let college interfere with your education.@ I can say that, at least in my case, there was much truth to this saying. For the most part, I remember little of my undergraduate education in economics at Virginia Tech, completed in March 1978. Allan Mandelstamm pricked my interest in economics with his microeconomic principles course, taken early in my sophomore year. But my love affair with economics as a science was initiated by my contact with two professors during my senior year: Barney Lentz and Bob Tollison. Barney, who later became my longtime professional collaborator, taught a superb course in labor economics. Bob, who subsequently became my mentor in graduate school and the early part of my academic career, as well as an occasional research partner, introduced me to rent seeking and the Leviathan State in the context of a fascinating course on Mercantilism.
For a variety of reasons, having nothing whatsoever to do with the scholarly eminence sitting on my doorstep, I decided to stay at Virginia Tech to pursue my doctoral studies.1 It was during my second year, in his graduate course on Public Finance, that I experienced personally the depth of analysis that I have found to be so characteristic of Professor Buchanan=s work. Yet this was by no means the defining point in my early development as an economist. What is etched into my memory and has defined both my own thinking about what is of fundamental importance to economic (indeed all) science and my understanding of, and appreciation for Professor Buchanan results from two specific private interactions with him, and my ongoing observations of his behavior from a distance, while in graduate school.
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At about 4 in the afternoon on Christmas Eve 1980, I tapped on Professor Buchanan=s office door to offer him departing wishes of the holiday season. Upon entering, I was immediately struck by his unnatural pallor and desolate mood. Nonetheless, I rather stammered out my hope that he enjoy a merry Christmas. He responded painfully slowly by saying something like, AI=m afraid it=s not going to be a very merry Christmas for me this year....@ Seems a donkey that he was very fond of had died earlier; this had sent him into a black depression on the worst of days.
Those readers who have had the pleasure of visiting Jim=s farm outside of Blacksburg, Virginia will know that he is an animal lover to the core. Having raised a small menagerie of different pets over the years, I was deeply touched by and sympathetic to his pain. So it was that by approximately 4:15 p.m. on Christmas Eve 1980, my surrogate mother during graduate school, Betty Tillman (who also doubled at that time as Jim=s secretary) and I were working the telephone trying desperately to find someone in the local area who had a Christmas donkey to sell. Indeed, lady luck smiled on us that evening: the manager of a farm near Christiansburg had several. We went out for a look in the bitter cold and light snow flurries and promptly acquired an adorable young donkey, that was small enough to fit in the back of my small truck (with a camper shell). By 5:30 or so when we pulled in to the driveway of the Buchanans= country home, it was pitch black. Now Betty Tillman has had many Afinest hours,@ but, to me, this was the finest of her finest: she marched up to the door and convinced Jim that I had something that he simply had to see without delay and dragged him out into the inky Blacksburg winter to the back of my truck. At roughly the same instant as Jim craned his head forward to peer into my truck, the little donkey peered out. The look on one of those two faces has been etched into my memory for nearly 20 years now. Perhaps it was a newly-discovered Christmas spirit, it=s hard to say in retrospect. I do know that Jim allowed as how he probably had a spot in his barn to keep little Pedro.
Now Pedro wasn=t always on his best behavior. Donkey that he was, he was perfectly capable of making an ass out of himself. He was a bit of a ladies= man, so to speak, to the chagrin of the local grazing fauna and the occasional embarassment of Jim and Ann. But I saw that little donkey help heal a man=s heart one night. A little thing, perhaps. But all of these little things become the man who, in turn, has so profoundly influenced us all.
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High summer in Blacksburg comes in late July and August. One of the surefire indicators is the seemingly sudden appearance of blackberry bushes laden with fruit. Back in those days (the early 1980s) Jim was a journeyman vintner who made blackberry wine. So it was that one glorious July afternoon, Bob Tollison, Jim and I shoehorned ourselves into the cab of Bob=s tan truck and headed out to do some berry picking. I don=t recall much about the berries; I do recall snippets of the conversation we had on the way. Jim was bemoaning the fact that he hadn=t had any good ideas, inspirations, or insights pertaining to economics in several weeks. I, of course, was flabbergasted and utterly dejected. Not at the possibility that a scholar like Jim Buchanan had the occasional slow spell, but at the hopelessness of my own situation. Until very recently I had been under the impression, carefully fostered by my undergraduate professors, that there were no unanswered questions or issues in economics. As I progressed through graduate school, it gradually dawned on me that perhaps there were occasional disagreements among professional economists and interesting topics to write on. I=d likely struggle, but had some hope that I could contribute to the professional literature. These thoughts were dashed by Jim=s comments. If HE was having trouble identifying useful contributions to make to the scholarly literature of economics, then I was doomed to failure. Of course, it didn=t turn out that way, on two counts. First, there are lots of contributions to be made, some more important than others. Second, and relatedly, Jim has a lifelong habit of making really insightful contributions with considerable intellectual depth. What HE refers to as an idea or insight is just a little different than what most of the rest of us refer to. Nonetheless, his emphasis on ideas, not technique, made an enormous impact on this aspiring scholar.
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My strongest and most enduring impression of Jim Buchanan, and lesson learned from him, was formed from arm=s-length observation. I watched one of the most accomplished and famous economists in the world come to work each morning at 7:30 and work all day until 5:30, Monday through Friday. He returned for evening seminars. As justified by whatever project he was working on at the time, he devoted weekends to his scholarship. His labors were labors of love for his work, seasoned by devotion to really understanding the problems and issues he tackled. For most of us, excellence requires such a work ethic because we=re not innate geniuses. This is especially so in my own case. We each learn this truth in our own way. Jim Buchanan unknowingly, by personal example, conveyed this critical and enduring truth to me during those years in Blacksburg. It is the foundation upon which my own career has been erected.
1Indeed, in 1978 when I started graduate school I was essentially ignorant with respect to the intellectual captial in economics available at Virginia Tech.