Spotlight: Economics Educator


The struggle for a free society cannot be waged solely with slogans nor by scholars in their academic journals. While economic analysis provides free-market solutions to today's problems, if these solutions are to win acceptance, America's policymakers outside of the economics profession—business executives, politicians, and professionals—must be exposed to the results of the analysis. Economic concepts need to be translated out of academia's jargon and applied to everyday problems. It was with this in mind that William R. Allen created the International Institute for Economic Research (IIER).

Since the institute's inception in 1975, Allen, its president, and professor of economics at UCLA, has successfully undertaken an "educational venture" to apply "well-established economic theory to public policy" and then to disseminate these studies among America's decision-makers. The IIER fulfills this educational role by distributing public-policy-oriented pamphlets, averaging about 20 pages in length, approximately once a month. Soon the institute will also begin production of a syndicated radio commentary, which will be broadcast on 100 stations. It has a mailing list of over 9,000 names, including 4,000 business executives and professionals, 1,500 members of the media, over 300 academics, all the members of Congress, 800 congressional aides, some members of the executive branch, and many other influential people. Allen believes that on account of "this research and educational effort, there is a fighting chance of influencing some strategically located decisionmakers and spokesmen in both the government and the marketplace."

Institute studies have dealt with such topics as the energy crisis, why government grows, antitrust, advertising by professionals, the multiple tax on corporate income, the effect on corporations of government's attack on private property, and income distribution. To write the pamphlets, Professor Allen has organized an impressive array of scholars, including a former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, Paul W. McCracken; Nobel Laureates Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek; the dean of the Graduate School of Management of the University of Rochester, William H. Meckling; and the chairman of UCLA's Economics Department, Harold Demsetz.

The IIER is not attempting to compete with professional economics journals. It is "intended to contribute only marginally, and typically indirectly, to the further development of economic theory per se." Nor are the pamphlets directed toward examining specific legislation before Congress. Allen has instead focused the analysis on general topics, and the pamphlets are often couched in language typically used in introductory college economics courses. He has attempted to create a product for which the reader does not have to labor tediously for hours and that would supply the reader with a general background in the subject.

While the pamphlets have not been aimed at economic specialists, neither have they been written for the mass audience; they are specifically for the country's "movers and shakers." Allen explains that the efforts of the IIER are focused on "the more or less immediate decisionmakers and their aides and advisors. So, in a sense, we start at the top of the decisionmaking pyramid and go as far down as we can." Though he has no basic objection to reaching a wider spectrum of people—as demonstrated by his development of a syndicated radio commentary series and his own participation on radio and television shows—it is simply not feasible financially.

There is ample evidence that Allen's efforts are achieving the desired results. Some key people around the country are starting to take notice of the institute's activities. One congressman's aide told Allen "that out of the flood of material we get constantly, the material of the institute is, by a considerable margin, the most valuable." Two of Senator Tower's aides described the pamphlets as exactly what they needed to provide the senator with background information on issues. Comments such as these are very encouraging in view of the voluminous amount of often worthless material that Congress receives. Congressional staffs just do not have the inclination, ability, or time to read through the reams of technical documents that cross their desks. Yet Allen recognizes that the educational process takes time. "Results here are not to be expected soon. That does not mean that I lack a sense of urgency. I think it's simply recognizing that any type of educational endeavor takes a while."

Professor Allen is well suited to the task of forming and running the institute. He has been chairman of the UCLA Economics Department, a consultant to the Department of Commerce, visiting professor at several universities, a member of the UCLA faculty since 1952. and president of the Western Economic Association. During 1978 he received the Harvey L. Eby Award for his outstanding teaching ability. A specialist in international economics and the history of economic theory, he is the coauthor, editor, or coeditor of five books.

Allen, whose father was a Methodist minister who preached "what they like to call the social gospel," believes that "it's the world that has changed much more than I have. The world has become more and more radicalized. So views which are quite conservative now were barely right of center and indeed may have been left of center twenty years ago." In fact, Allen wrote Adlai Stevenson's seconding speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. He maintains that the two individuals who have had the greatest influence on his life, other than his parents, are Joseph J. Spengler of Duke, who "was an exhaustive type of scholar," and Armen A. Alchian of UCLA, who is almost "an older brother" and who "finds economics behind every rock." Philosophically, Allen identifies himself with Thomas Hobbes's view that the problem with the state of nature is scarcity, but he finds the solution in Adam Smith's idea of allowing people to follow their own pursuits.

In the short span of three years, Allen has turned the International Institute for Economic Research into a promising educational tool, and its effect is starting to be seen. He accepts the inherent difficulties, however, in trying to educate people, continuing his efforts with the realization that "you cannot turn a person into a renaissance man in a weekend."