When Hugh H. Macaulay passed away Wednesday, surrounded by his family, I realized that this involved much more than the death of a man beloved by many, as was the case with Hugh. No, the passing of Hugh Macaulay also marks another milestone in the death of what we call academic economics itself. Those of us economists who knew Hugh understand that there is no one to replace him, and the graduate schools — as well as the economics profession — are not producing any more people like him.
For those readers not familiar with Hugh, he taught economics for many years at Clemson University, retiring in 1983, although he stayed busy until his death. His specialty was the area of what we call "environmental and resource economics," but he had interests in about everything when it came to the study and teaching of economics.
He was one of those characters that one never forgets. He was diminutive, and wore his bow tie everywhere. (Yes, Hugh was the guy who taught me how to tie a proper bow tie knot, and I wore my Mises Institute bow tie to school yesterday in his honor.) He had one leg encased in a brace, the result of being wounded in World War II — he was gunned down in France in 1944 while attacking a German machine gun nest. (He told me that he saw bullets kicking up dust all around him, but it never occurred to him that one of those slugs might actually hit him.)
My own history with Hugh — and his wonderful wife, Pinky — goes back more than two decades. I never was in a classroom with him, but he was one of my teachers, all the same. I met the Macaulays at a 1982 summer seminar hosted by the Center for Economic Education of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and the head of the center was William H. Peterson, the recent winner of the Schlarbaum Prize. Hugh gave a talk on inflation, and you would have had to have been there to understand just how entertaining — and informative — that it was.
(To emphasize the rate of inflation since the end of World War II, he unrolled a scroll on which was drawn a graph measuring the decline of the dollar. As the scroll kept unrolling, he stood on a chair — his brace rattling away — and kept unrolling…and unrolling…and unrolling. We got the point.)
That was a heady summer for me, as I had just won the Olive Garvey Award and was preparing to travel to West Berlin, Germany, in two months to present my paper to the Mont Pelerin Society. Hugh and Pinky suggested that I enroll in the master’s program at Clemson, and I said I would look into it. A few months later, I had an article in the Freeman, and afterwards received a letter from Hugh urging me to enroll at Clemson.
To make a long story short, I did just that, but the story gets even better. I visited Clemson in June, 1983, and he and Pinky shocked me by asking me to live in their house that year while they were away at Texas A&M, where he was to be a visiting professor. So it was that I lived in the Macaulay house with Mark Mitchell, who would receive his doctorate at Clemson and later be tenured in the graduate departments of finance at the University of Chicago and Harvard University.
Of course, what good is house sitting if there are not a few stories to tell? Mark and I used to say that our biggest fear was coming back from school at the end of the day to find the Macaulay house burned to the ground. I almost accomplished that one.
One night, in anticipation of a visit from some family members, I decided to build a fire in the fireplace in the den. Unfortunately, I had not opened the damper, and soon the house began to be filled with smoke. I calmly called the Macaulays in College Station and asked where the damper was, not giving away the desperate nature of the situation at hand. Hugh told me, but then later called and said that they would prefer I build no fires at all. Had they only known…or perhaps they did, but said nothing.
Mark and I had the duty of feeding their cat, which by then was old enough to be giving up the ghost himself. I would feed him by putting food in his bowl, and then carrying him to the food and putting his face in it to make him aware that he could eat. One morning at school, Mark told me that I must have run over the cat with my truck (a 1968 Chevy half-ton pickup, and a great truck it was), since the poor beast was lying quite dead in the garage.
I dutifully called Pinky to let her know that her cat had died, and that most likely I had helped it along to its Stygian abode. She was nice about it, and when I came back to the house that night at about midnight, I buried the cat under what seemed to be a full moon. (I have no idea if that means anything in the lore of superstition, but those were the facts of the poor cat’s interment.)
The year passed without any more excitement, although I did get my master’s degree, and learned a lot of economics in the process. Clemson’s economics department, while fully in the neo-classical envelope, also was mostly free market in orientation and was heavily influenced by the economists from UCLA, including Armen Alchian (who surely deserves the Nobel Prize more than an imposter like Paul Krugman), William Allen, and Harold Demsetz. I also was introduced to Bruce Yandle, Hugh’s good friend, and an outstanding economist in his own right.
I kept in touch with the Macaulays for more than a decade, and then headed to Auburn University for doctoral studies in economics. Hugh and Pinky were supportive of my efforts, and when I finished my studies, I interviewed at a small college called North Greenville College, which was about 40 miles from where they lived near Clemson. I was reluctant to take the job, given that I would be expected to carry a junior-college load of five classes a semester, with pay at a less-than-junior college rate, but the prospect of living near some of my favorite people won me over. (Hugh confided to me that when he first taught at Clemson, after receiving his doctorate from Columbia University, he also taught five courses a term. That was in the age before "publish-or-perish" became the watchword at Clemson.)
I did not regret my decision to move to the South Carolina upstate. Each month, I would meet with Hugh, Bruce Yandle, Jody Lipford (a Clemson graduate who is on the faculty at Presbyterian College), and others at Pixie & Bill’s Restaurant in Clemson for a meal and book discussion. (One of the books we chose was Fifteen Great Austrian Economists, which gave me the chance to explain the Austrian paradigm to the group.) After two years, I took my present position at Frostburg State University in Maryland, but to this day, the thing I miss most about being in South Carolina is that monthly book group. Hugh and Bruce kept me up-to-date on what was being discussed with regular e-mails, but I must admit it just was not the same as being there.
By this time, Hugh’s eyesight had deteriorated, but he was active and continuing his course of lifetime learning. His computer had a program that spoke to him (unfortunately, it pronounced Hugh to be "Hug," so I used to send e-mails to "Hug" just to tease him), and Pinky read to him on a regular basis, so that mind of his kept working.
He and Yandle in 1977 co-authored Environmental Use and the Market, which is on my shelf and is well-read. Their approach was Coasean, and while I do not hold exclusively to such a way of thinking myself, I learned many good things from it, and from my conversations with Hugh on environmental matters. (Neither of us cared much for modern, socialistic environmentalists, which was an excellent starting point for discussion.)
I don’t know how he would have fared in the modern age of academe, when good teaching is considered passé at the nation’s "research" institutions, and he certainly did not fret about publishing in the latest "A" journal. He obviously had the talent to survive today’s academic atmosphere, poisonous as it is, but I wonder if he could have had the influence that he enjoyed had he been another grunt trying to get a piece in AER or JPE instead of influencing minds in the places where such influence counted.
Instead, he was a product of an earlier age, when larger-than-life people appeared in our classrooms, challenged us to think, and made us realize that learning was a continuous activity, not something we did in order to do well on the next exam. Everyone who knew Hugh Macaulay will miss him terribly, because there are no other men like him, although one wishes there were. What remains is his legacy as someone who helped the rest of us think more clearly — and be better people.