Reminiscence of Bill Allen

Below is a reminiscence for Professor Bill Allen, who passed away on January 15, 2021, from former student Suheil Kawar (UCLA Econ Ph.D. – 1974).


Dear Dr. Costa,

May I start by telling you how much I appreciate your efforts at maintaining contact with graduates of the UCLA Economics Program and enjoy reading about faculty and student endeavors and achievements.

Pease forgive my intrusion on your time.  I have taken the liberty of contacting you to express an appreciation of Bill Allen whose death on January 15, 2021 just came to my attention through your latest letter. In this connection, it may be a worthwhile endeavor to invite former students to reminisce about faculty they have known and thereby establish a written record to supplement the longstanding oral tradition.

Bill Allen (throughout my daily presence at UCLA from 1964 through 1968, I never heard anybody refer to him except as “Bill”) was a wonderful teacher and conveyer of the basic economic concepts and ideas. He may not enjoy the reputation among academic economists that his high-powered UCLA contemporaries Armen Alchian, Karl Brunner, Jack Hirshleifer, Axel Leijonhufvud, and Earl Thompson enjoyed through their well-regarded books or articles in the top professional journals, but he was a very effective disseminator of the basic ideas and issues of price theory. Through his talks on “The Midnight Economist” he reached a much wider audience to which he succinctly explained various issues arising out of the scarcity, cost-benefit calculus, choice, and allocation issues that are at the center of microeconomic analysis. In this respect, he may have had a much greater impact on the dissemination of ideas, and their acceptance, and on formulation of public policy than was possible through addressing the more exclusive audience that academic economists try to reach in their writings.

Allow me to share a few reminiscences from my encounters with Bill Allen.

I first ran into him just after my arrival to the graduate program in September 1964 when he was assigned as my advisor for selecting courses to register for. He looked at my selection of graduate classes which included Economic Theory (then Econ 201A) with Dr. Alchian. His reaction was that three of the four selections were fine but that taking Theory with Alchian during my first semester was a bad idea! He suggested taking the class with Dr. Intriligator who had just joined the department from MIT and was sure to assign a long and comprehensive reading list that all new graduate students should labor through. He said that Alchian would expect his students to start addressing implications of resource allocation questions regardless of whether they had the tools or even knew the literature! And he was right. I audited Alchian’s class in my first semester (we were on the semester system back then) and realized what a challenge it would have been to make sense of the class and the instructor’s seriousness.

Bill Allen was known for his wry sense of humor and ability to couch statements in low-key terms that did not intimidate the listener. As such he could convey a harsh evaluation in a much easier to take manner compared with how Alchian and Karl Brunner would convey the same information. This made him much more successful at toning down both good and bad news and avoided the listener’s elation or deflation.

There used to be a faculty-graduate student get together on Friday afternoons 3-5 pm wherein faculty would provide coffee and doughnuts and topical economic issues would be raised. It was held in that gloomy windowless common room in the middle of the 8th floor of Bunche Hall. One day Bill Allen came into the room beaming saying that he had talked to Professor McKean at the University of Virginia (Dr. McKean was an eminent specialist in public finance who had moved from UCLA to UVa in 1965) who told him that supermarkets in Charlottesville, Va. sold only grade A California oranges! Many in the room looked quizzically at one another waiting for Bill Allen to elaborate. He beamed and explained that Mckean’s observation was a confirmation of the Law of Demand: with equal transport costs, superior quality oranges would be relatively less expensive than lower quality oranges and thus relatively more of them would be consumed! Bill Allen always delighted in pursuing such basic implications of price theory

Throughout my stay at UCLA, Bill Allen had the office at the very end of a long corridor on the 8th floor of Bunche Hall (room 8296 if memory serves me correctly) which required a long walk to reach him. He would give directions to his office as being after Dr. Herrick’s office and just before the room allocated for women students trying to take a rest!

Sometime in the late 1980s, Bill Allen came to the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. to give a talk about payment imbalances. I was working there at the time and went to hear his remarks. After he finished and we were making some small talk, he beamed at me and said that he was happy that the UCLA brand of economics was finding newer places to work in than the usual college affiliates. I told him that I had listened to The Midnight Economist by accident during a passage through Los Angeles and he was kind enough to send me seven compilations of his talks which I keep at hand and refer to frequently. Good analysis never goes stale.