The Liberal Arts and UCLA Economics

Again, welcome back to those returning to campus.  I’m looking forward to getting back myself and cranking up the 300 class.  Meanwhile, a few weeks ago we instituted a segment titled “free market Monday,” which will emphasize the ideas of some seriously pro-market economists.

In that spirit, here is a piece of interest from the latest edition of Econ Journal Watch — an interview with William Allen (of Alchian and Allen fame) about his path to a professorship UCLA, as well as the heyday of the UCLA economics department under the leadership of Armen Alchian (of Alchian; Alchian & DemsetzKlein, Crawford, & Alchian fame, among others).  Allen begins with a shout out to the liberal arts, as he extols the virtues of his time at Iowa’s Cornell College:

[E]specially for one who is headed for graduate work, there is much in favor of first attending a small liberal arts college. At Cornell, there was a great deal which could be learned about the various aspects of the world and its evolution in the mandatory year-long freshman courses in English, history, and the social sciences. The learning was facilitated by classes of small size taught by non-T.A.s, and by much interaction with fellow students in the dorms and dining halls. And one can be captain of the tennis team without being a professional jock.

I’m not sure that the mandatory nature of the courses was the linchpin of his undergraduate education (at least I hope not, since my alma mater has no such requirements), but certainly writing and discourse are important.  Indeed, one of my professors in graduate school said that liberal arts students seemed to have a better feel for what an interesting question is.

The meat of the interview is a discussion of the UCLA economics department under the leadership of Armen Alchian.

[Alchian] was confident that much of previously unaccountable behavior and phenomena could be explicated by fundamental and often quite simple (when adroitly utilized) analytic propositions and techniques. The tools of Econ l and 2 can be powerful in masterly hands. Larry Miller observed, with some appreciation, that Alchian “found economics behind every rock.”

Indeed, I am pleased to kick off the term on such a positive message, that economics isn’t really about learning a lot of esoteric, high-powered theories. The real joy of economics, for me at least, is applying the basic tools to frame an issue or to solve a puzzle.  We hope that you agree and join us for the fun.

For those of you not familiar with Econ Journal Watch, I suggest you check it out.  The journal is primarily a collection of comments and discussions on what’s going on in mainstream economics journals.  I have harvested a number of ideas from them for use in class.