Monday, April 6

An economic tradition


Saturday's conference honors professor emeritus' contributions to field of economics in 60 years at UCLA

His name may not be as well known as John Wooden, but Armen
Alchian is arguably just as much a part of UCLA history as the
longtime men’s basketball coach.

Alchian, who turned 92 last month, is now in his 60th year at
UCLA and ranks among the most respected economists in the
country.

And the professor emeritus of economics and founder of the
“UCLA tradition” in economics can add Saturday’s
conference on the Armenian economy, held in Alchian’s honor,
to his long list of accolades.

But the plainspoken academic remains modest about his
achievements as an economist.

“It’s like painting a house or working as a
carpenter. It’s the same thing ““ something comes up and
you deal with it,” he said about the challenges he has faced.
“It’s pretty straightforward, nothing
romantic.”

In a hushed, grandfatherly tone, Alchian explained that his
proudest achievements as a professor are not the awards he has won,
but are instead the classes he has taught and the students who
benefit from the books he has written.

Alchian’s colleagues, though, are less reserved when
speaking of his impact on the world of economics.

“Armen is the Armenian Adam Smith,” said economics
Professor Emeritus Michael Intriligator at Saturday’s
conference and in a subsequent interview. “He’s had a
profound impact on the profession and has made us rethink a lot of
things.”

Intriligator, who has known Alchian since 1962, said his
colleague “would be a very good candidate for the Nobel Prize
in economics.”

Alchian declined to take much credit for his groundbreaking
theories, saying he believes much of the attention he has received
is derived from the size and prominence of UCLA. But many of his
colleagues consider his work the forerunner of what has become
known as the UCLA tradition, which focuses on the rational,
self-seeking nature of individual behavior in economics.

Alchian’s work is widely cited despite the fact that he
has written comparatively few published works.

His most well-known work, a textbook titled “University
Economics,” is considered highly influential, even though it
has not sold extremely well.

As of Sunday, “University Economics” ranked #427,771
in Amazon.com book sales. But the online Library of Economics and
Liberty says the text’s “impact was out of all
proportion to its sales.”

Numerous sources consider the book’s innovation to be its
unique, conversational approach to explaining economic
principles.

“One of the marks of his works is that it’s largely
uncluttered with mathematics,” said Harold Demsetz, another
professor emeritus of economics and longtime friend of Alchian,
when introducing him in Saturday’s conference. Demsetz made
special note of his friend’s “clarity, originality,
willingness to break free from old approaches.”

Alchian was born in Fresno in 1914. After attending California
State University, Fresno for two years, Alchian transferred to
Stanford University in 1934 where he received his B.A. and Ph.D.
While there, he met the woman he would marry.

“We fell in love and got married and had some children and
they had their children,” he said.

Alchian came to UCLA in 1946 after working as a statistical
specialist for the U.S. Air Force from 1942 to 1945. He was
promoted to professor in 1958.

Nine years ago the university established the Armen A. Alchian
Chair in Economic Theory, which is currently held by economics
Professor David Levine.

At just 92 years of age, Alchian said he has not completely
given up teaching. As a professor emeritus, he considers himself
retired, but he is welcome to come back.

“I don’t have any plans to (teach classes next
year), but you never know,” he said.

When he is not teaching, Alchian said he likes to golf. Before
hurting his back last year, he said he had gotten his handicap down
to around seven strokes. Beyond golf, he tends to keep his
activities low key.

“I just sit around and talk with my friends ““ no
murders, no scandals,” he said.


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