Thomas D. Willett

Director, Claremont Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Horton Professor of Economics

Claremont Graduate University

and

Claremont McKenna College

 

In 1965 Warren Nutter took a leave and Jim Buchanan taught the advanced price theory course at University of Virginia. This was very fortunate for me since I was not into public choice yet. (It was still called non market decision making in this ancient days). Of course, I followed the Buchanan-Tullock contributions to public choice indirectly through coffee time discussions with my classmate and later through the private tutorials that Bob Tollison kindly gave me while we were colleagues at Cornell, but without Nutterís leave I would not have had the benefit of seeing Jim at work in the classroom.

It was a tremendously stimulating experience. Jim was working out his ideas on the disconnections between our economic concept of opportunity costs and the standard text book manipulations of cost curves and how these related to subjective costs. All this culminated in his marvelous little book on the Theory of Costs.

It was a wonderful gift to see Jim at work - constantly challenging arguments and sharpening formulations. We quickly learned that a creative challenge to his arguments was the best way to earn a good grade (and learn to be a real economist). The feeling that one was seeing research being created was incredibly exciting and had a major impact on my decision to pursue an academic career. Equally important were its illustrations of how easy it is to fall into implicit theorizing and how valuable it is to spend time examining the implicit and explicit assumptions underlying any analysis. None of us can hope to completely avoid the practice of implicit theorizing, but any time we can catch ourselves or others is a step for progress. Much of my written work has taken this form. Starting with a critique of Joan Robinsonís analysis of Adam Smithís deer and beaver model that began as a class paper and ended as a note in the Journal of Economic studies and my dissertation with Alex Kufka and Leland Yeager that examined the policy implication of replacing the standard flow theory of international capital flows with a more theoretically justified stock adjustment view. (the key part of this analysis was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1969) My research agenda has owed much to the style of doing economies that I learned at University of Virginia, especially from that course with Jim and my studies with Leland Yeager. It still saddens me to think of how the Virginia group was broken up, but I am thankful that I had the privilege of being a student there during its heyday.