A personal reminiscence
Professor of Economics
Clemson, SC 29634
Anyone Over 50 is a "Damn Fool"
I first met Jim Buchanan in 1968. I was a first-year graduate student at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He was there to deliver a seminar for faculty and students in the Department of Economics. I had no idea who Jim Buchanan was and was totally ignorant of the public choice revolution he was leading at the time. Indeed, reputations, schools of thought, and other features of academe were a complete mystery to me. After all, it was just my second quarter in graduate school, and I had spent 13 years in business between this and my undergraduate years at Mercer University. I had a lot to learn.
Fortunately, I had some good teachers. Richard Bilas, Richard Wallace, and Jim Miller, all University of Virginia PhDs, were Georgia State faculty members, sometimes referred to as the Virginia Mafia. They were leading the charge to build enthusiasm for Jimís seminar. There were even rumors that Buchanan might consider moving to Georgia State, and that added fuel to the Mafiaís fire.
I was enrolled in Dick Bilasís price theory class at the time, and he made it clear that he expected to see each of us in the seminar room; we should be prepared to hear a remarkable presentation. I really didnít know what to expect. I had never been to a faculty seminar before, but I had seen lots of bordered Hessians and other mathematical symbols march across the boards in Bilasís class. Most likely, I said to myself, I would not understand a word Professor Buchanan would say, if he happened to use words at all.
Was I in for a surprise. No Hessians and no fancy diagrams. Just plain talk that challenged the very essence of what I was learning at the time.
Jim endeared the graduate students in the room when he opened his discussion by drawing on the wisdom of Mark Twain, that great Mississippi River economist. Indicating that he was approaching his 50th birthday, Jim told us that Mark Twain had something to say on the subject. According to Twain, anyone under 50 is a fool, Buchanan told us. He paused while we shuffled our feet a few seconds, realizing now that we were not only ignorant graduate students but fools as well. Jim cleared his voice. Laughing lightly he continued. "And Twain says that anyone over 50 is a damn fool." In a flash we were redeemed from our stupidity. It was all relative. Being a fool seemed much better than becoming a damn fool. Buchanan had just said he was about to pass the half century mark. We wondered what was coming next. Was he going to say he was a damn fool?
No, that was not the point. Buchanan explained that some things in economics were not as simple as they seemingly had been. Much of price theory just didnít make as much sense to him. No, he explained quickly, it wasnít that price theory was wrong. Just the reverse. Its power was never ceasing to increase. Intrigued by non-market problems and individual decision making, Jim talked about the incompleteness of the theory and the lack of attention generally paid to ceteris paribus conditions. Price theory was not wrong. The problem was with economists and their use of the theory. Instead of exploring evermore complex equilibrium conditions, we should be trying to explain the way the world works.
As he discussed various topics, Buchanan touched on elements of the theory of clubs, the tendency for political party platforms to converge, and explained how individuals could privately adjust the level of environmental quality encountered just as they adjusted the price charged for stadium seats. A high price could be adjusted downward by leaving trash in the aisles and breaking beer bottles in the stands. As I listened to Buchanan that day, I began to realize that there was far more to economics than bordered Hessians. In fact, the richness of the discipline he revealed led me to begin an offensive strategy in my study of economics. The Hessians would have to wait.
Remember now, this was 1968. Protesters were in the streets. College campuses were in turmoil. The countryís social fabric was being ripped apart by the great disruptions of the time. At the same time, the limits of the Leviathan were being tested as, one after another, major federal statutes were being passed that promised everything from an end of poverty, the glorification of urban space, decent homes and safe work places for one and all, clean air, clean water, a man on the moon, and freedom from communism in Southeast Asia.
If there were ever a time to be excited about public finance, collective choice, externalities, property rights, and public policy, this was it.
Georgia Stateís Virginia Mafia took all this in stride and began to enlist some converts. Jim Miller, teaching industrial organization and public policy, turned his class into a hard-hitting issues seminar . Dick Bilas took his welfare economics course and converted it to a price theory-based research seminar. And Paul Gatons, not of the Virginia School but surely of the Buchanan school, designed his advanced public finance class around Buchananís new book, The Demand and Supply of Public Goods. Following the Buchanan tradition, we were told that if we werenít writing, we werenít thinking. Students and faculty alike spent days and nights doing economics. There was plenty to do and plenty to write.
As the academic quarters passed, I became increasingly aware of Buchananís uncanny ability to reposition old questions in ways that led to powerful new answers. I also learned, as many others have, that practically all of my "new" ideas were captured in something Jim had written ten years earlier. Trying to read everything he had written was practically impossible, if one was also going to stay abreast of Buchananís current output. I tried.
If this reminiscence ended right here, it would probably say enough to make the point that Jim Buchanan played a key role in my life as an economist. His rendering of economics defined the questions I would pursue and the tools I would use. For all this, I am deeply grateful. But this is not the end of the story.
The time came for doctoral students to prepare dissertation proposals. I wrote a proposal to examine urban decay using externality and property rights theory. The proposal included a paper that set forth the problem to be investigated, the methods to be used, and a core model I had already developed. The paper was the product of several seminars and courses. Dick Bilas, Jim Miller, and Richard Wallace agreed to be my dissertation committee with one proviso. They would send my proposal to Jim Buchanan. If he approved it, I had a dissertation. Otherwise, it was back to the drawing board.
In a matter of a few weeks, a letter arrived from Jim Buchanan. Yes, he said, I think there is a dissertation here. Encourage Yandle to continue.
Thirty years have passed since that day in Atlanta when a group of graduate students heard that any man over 50 is a damn fool. Jim Buchanan has explored and expanded the boundaries of the discipline and earned a Nobel Prize. Yet along the way, he has always found the time to read an aspiring studentís paper, offer comments, and encourage others to explore the fence lines of the discipline.