Monday, September 2, 2013

His story wasn't bunk

Ronald Coase had the battle scars to prove it, as he related to Reason Magazine in 1997;
...the people at the University of Chicago thought it was an error. Some people thought I should delete this section from my article on the FCC. The person who most desired this was Reuben Kessel, who was a very good economist, but he was supported by Aaron Director and George Stigler and others at the University of Chicago. I replied that if it was an error, it was a very interesting error and I would just as soon it stayed in. And it did stay in.
Then George Stigler invited me to do something at a workshop in Chicago and I presented something on another topic. I said I'd like to have an opportunity to discuss my error. Aaron Director arranged a meeting at his home. Director was there, Milton Friedman was there, George Stigler was there, Arnold Harberger was there, John McGee was there--all the big shots of Chicago were there, and they came to set me right. They liked me, but they thought I was wrong. I expounded my views and then they questioned me and questioned me. Milton was the person who did most of the questioning and others took part. I remember at one stage, Harberger saying, "Well, if you can't say that the marginal cost schedule changes when there's a change in liability, he can run right through." What he meant was that, if this was so, there was no way of stopping me from reaching my conclusions. And of course that was right. I said, "What is the cost schedule if a person is liable, and what is the cost schedule if he isn't liable for damage?" It's the same. The opportunity cost doesn't shift.
There were a lot of other points too, but the decisive thing was that this schedule didn't change. They thought if someone was liable it would be different than if he weren't. This meeting was very grueling for me. I don't know whether you've had a conversation with Milton Friedman, but an argument with Milton Friedman is a pretty strenuous affair. He's very good. He's very fair, but he doesn't let you slip up on anything. You're constantly being pressed. But when at the end of whatever the time was--say, an hour--I found I was still standing, I knew I'd won. Because if Milton can't knock you out in a few rounds, you're home.
Dead at 102, having recently published his last book (co-authored it with Ning Wang) How China Became Capitalist. Another giant of economics gone.

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