Economics

RIP William R. Allen (1924-2021)

Bill Allen was my multiple-times UCLA econ professor, author of The Midnight Economist and co-author of Alchian & Allen's University Economics.

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William R. Allen, my multiple-times UCLA econ professor when I was in college between 1989 and 1993, author of The Midnight Economist, and co-author of Alchian & Allen's University Economics, died recently. I had him at UCLA for Econ 2 (Macroeconomics), Econ 107 (History of Economic Thought), and an independent study project. (I believe Eugene also took a class from him when he was in college.)

Here's Donald Boudreaux discussing the Alchian & Allen textbook:

Among the ten greatest books ever written in economics is University Economics. First published in 1972, this textbook that is co-authored by Armen A. Alchian and William R. Allen is a marvel. If you read it and grasp even no more than one-third of its lessons you will gain keener insights into economic forces at work than are had by some Nobel laureates in economics. If you grasp most of the lessons of this book, you will possess economic insight that is rivaled by very few people indeed.

And here's Peter Boettke:

Allen was a force in the great UCLA tradition of economic education that challenged the Keynesian hegemony in the 1960s-1970s.  His retrospective on UCLA is one of my favorite and most informative retrospectives on the trials and tribulations of maintaining greatness over time in an academic setting.

Somehow, I managed to get through an economics degree at UCLA without having taken classes from the old great ones—Alchian, Demsetz, Hirshleifer, etc. I didn't even know who they were until way after I graduated; I chose professors strictly by who fit into my schedule; and I thought "Theory of the Firm", "Industrial Organization", and "Public Finance" (all topics that I ended up specializing in when I was in grad school) were dull topics for business-school types! Someone should have counseled me otherwise at some point.

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  1. I went through the Ph.D. program at UCLA starting in the mid-1980s. I never TA’d for Bill Allen (or “William Richard Allen,” as he would say when he picked up the phone), but I did get acquainted with him when I was the department’s “counseling assistant” for three years. While I was not in agreement with his opinions on a lot of issues, I did greatly admire his commitment to quality undergraduate teaching in a large research institution. Among the senior faculty at UCLA at that time, he was almost alone in that respect.

    I don’t know when you were at UCLA, but when I was there, the “big names” in the econ department seldom taught at the undergraduate level. Alchian was semi-retired by that time, and I believe that the only course he taught was a seminar over in the B-School, for Ph.D. students in Finance.

    My recollection is that the only undergrad econ course that Demsetz regularly taught was a special course, open only to students in the “Economics-Business” major. Hirshleifer might have occasionally taught in the intermediate micro theory sequence. Axel Leijonhufvud may have taught European Economic History for undergrads once in a while, and John McCall (who was at least a semi-big name) taught intermediate micro sometimes (I TA’d for him one quarter).

    But if you were in the undergrad econ program at the time, most of your courses would either be taught by junior faculty in the department, or by adjuncts (UCLA used to bring in a lot of economists from Rand to teach). Or by Bill Allen.

  2. I got an economics Ph.D. at UCLA in 1993. When I got there William Allen was already emeritus. But he still wrote occasional Midnight Economist columns for the Daily Bruin that were mischievous in nature, and would generate a few angry replies.

    I was very fortunate to have Jack Hirshleifer as my dissertation chair. I remember several times talking to him about some problem in his office and he would say he had just the article to read. Remarkably, his office was absolutely crammed with stacks of books, journals and papers, but he would go over to one of the stacks, go into the middle of it and there the item was. After his death, the department held a conference in his honor, which I attended. One of the presenters argued that of the economists who didn’t get a Nobel, he had deserved it the most. You could have said the same thing about Harold Demsetz, who was on my dissertation committee, or Armen Alchian, who wasn’t but who despite being emeritus would still come in to the office frequently and share guidance with a nobody grad student like me.

    There is always a danger as we age of falling into “Those were the days!” I don’t want to do that, but they were people who never forgot economic fundamentals, and I remember them all fondly.

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