TCS Daily

"I'm Willing to be Wrong"

By Arnold Kling - December 1, 2004 12:00 AM

"Econ is fireproof, if you know what I mean. It's practical. You can't possibly be taking it because you really love economics."
-- Tom Wolfe, I am Charlotte Simmons

If Tom Wolfe's fictional nerd, Adam Gellin, rather than attending mythical Dupont University in Chester, Pennsylvania, had gone to nearby Swarthmore College instead, he might have found it possible to love economics. Swarthmore had a wonderful economics professor, Bernard Saffran, who died the other day.

To picture Bernie, think of a man with a gigantic frame and not an ounce of muscle or aggression. At the top of his rotund figure, his head usually carried a full beard, which seemed tucked into the top of his chest. To hear Bernie, pronounce the word "rich" with your lips pulled back in a smile, rather than puckered, so that the "ch" comes out with a soft hiss.

His speech impediment notwithstanding, Bernie was the greatest conversationalist I have known. Conversation was his basic teaching method. In small seminars of six to eight students, the discussion would ramble and roam, but somehow the subject of economics managed to sink in. His congeniality made him one of the most popular men in the entire economics profession. "I know everyone," he once mused.

An Economics Teacher's Wit and Wisdom

I generally abhor academic "wit." Most professors have not outgrown the adolescent put-down artist's need to show off and fight for status, merely dressing it up in fancy language. Their idea of a good joke is something that few people understand.

Bernie was genuinely funny, in a gentle way that was free from snobbery. Here are a few Bernie-isms that I can recall:

"I never have to mow my lawn. I assume my neighbor's property values depend on how my house looks, so he'll do it for me. If I ever get into a dispute with my neighbor, I'll just threaten to paint my house purple."

"How can you value one person's consumption compared with another's? Maybe my consumption is worth more than everyone else's. Then I should stop working and produce social utility by eating ice cream full time."

"The best part about teaching is not having a boss."

"The Army Corps of Engineers wants to do as many projects as possible, so they try to use as low an interest rate as they can to discount future benefits. At a low enough interest rate, it pays to dam the Crum." (a tiny creek near Swarthmore)

"Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson say the same thing in their price theory texts. The difference is that on policy issues, Friedman actually takes price theory seriously."

"The conversation starter with a student used to be, 'Where are you from?' Now, I'm afraid to ask that. The answer these days is, 'Well, my mother is in upstate New York, my father is in Boston, and I still spend time with my first step-mother who lives in...' These kids are comforting their parents on relationship problems, rather than the other way around."

"Arnold, when you were in college, the big issue was how you felt about the Vietnam War. The minute you came on campus, you had to declare yourself on that. Today, the equivalent issue is sexual orientation. An 18-year-old kid comes here, and the first thing he has to do is say whether he's gay or bi or what have you."

"Nowadays, we have a Dean for every ethnic group and for all three genders and for every possible permutation."

The Larger Lesson

The larger lesson that Bernie taught could be summed up in one of his most often-used expressions: "I'm willing to be wrong." What it meant was, "I'm open to argument. But you'd better give me a good reason to change my mind, not simply throw around rhetoric." The message was that wisdom requires listening to other points of view and holding one's own position to high standards of intellectual rigor.

Bernie's opinions, expressed persuasively but never antagonistically, were well-honed. He was a moderate conservative on a campus with a tradition of Quaker radicalism -- during the height of the Vietnam protests Swarthmore flirted with becoming a totally Marxist institution.

Bernie embodied respect for sound reasoning, as opposed to politically correct positions. In his long-running column for the Journal of Economic Perspectives called "Suggestions for Further Reading," he drew his colleagues' attention to an eclectic set of articles, representing many disciplines and all political persuasions. This column was a predecessor of today's web logs, in that it provided rich links to a variety of interesting material.

Of all the economists that I have ever met, Bernie Saffran was the one I most wished to model myself after. Yet there was only one Bernie. I'm willing to be wrong, but I don't think there was ever a better economics teacher.


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