Harrod, R. F.
Robinson 2
Seligman, Edwin Robert Anderson
Menger, C.
Del Vecchio

Honorary member's speeches

After Dinner Speech at the 2004 ESHET Conference in Treviso by A. W. Bob Coats

Unfortunately Terence could not be here tonight, and for a brief interval we lost contact with him as inquiries concerning his whereabouts were to be addressed to the University of Birmingham archivist who followed the practice of not giving out addresses of people who have left the university. Terence has moved from his longestablished home in Edgbaston – just along the road from the County Cricket Ground. He now lives in Winchester near his son, and is – I am delighted to report – in fine form in his 92nd year. (For tributes from various scholars and professional friends I refer you to the 70th Summer 1993 issue of the History of Economic Thought Newsletter, edited by John Vint of Manchester Metropolitan University). That issue contains a number of tributes to Terence from leading economists in several countries, and is a pleasure to read. Individually and collectively they pinpoint various major reasons for the high esteem in which Terence’s work is held. The Newsletter also celebrated Terence’s 90th birthday, in two most enjoyable sessions at the University of Stirling, arranged with the cooperation of Sheila Dow.
Science and scholarship are deeply dependent on communication and fellowship – and this seems an appropriate moment to tell a couple of stories about the early development of organized contacts among British economists and others interested in the history of economic thought from the late 1960s. What emerged was in many ways a typically British affair, for it was characteristically informal. This became clear when I was asked, at one of the early annual conferences, whether ours was an ‘international organization’. I hesitated somewhat, saying that I was unsure, for “we do not have a president, a secretary, or a treasurer. Each successive annual meeting is arranged by volunteers at the preceding gathering.” This appeared to satisfy our Japanese enquirer when I stated, in my most pompous and authoritarian manner that we are an international organization; whereupon he responded by saying “good – now we can get grants to come . . .” Thus began the successful series of thirty or so conferences we have held.
My second story concerns the occasion when, years later, we were collectively invited to hold our next annual conference in Cambridge. The attractions were obvious; but some of our group feared the cost would be too high, thereby deterring young potential apprentice historians of economics, while others feared that we would be swamped by an army of Cambridge natives. Oddly enough, when the invitation was considered at our next annual gathering it was suggested, as a defensive measure, to appoint Bob Coats, as an unofficial member of our group – to protect us from these and other appalling possibilities. The matter became embarrassing when a voice from the back of the room declared – “why do we need a protector? We have never had one previously.” With that my potential role as a leader, negotiator, go-between, or whatever, never materialized as part of our “official” policy, and my opportunity to exercise power vanished. In practice, while we had cooperation from within Cambridge in various forms, no local academic offered a paper, despite a number of enthusiastic invitations. Thus, instead of being deluged with Cantabridgians, we ended
up with too few! When I was invited to give this address, it was tactfully suggested that I should aim to be both “amiable and witty”. As for the outcome, I leave it to this audience [i.e. readers] to judge for themselves. But both of the jokes I have selected from the abundant stock available have special significance for me, especially the first.
Some years ago I was invited to give a lecture at Lecce on an assigned topic: The past, present, and future of economics. Of course this was an impossible task; but in dealing with the future of economics I drew upon that wellknown American folk humorist, Yogi Berra, the one time catcher of the New York Yankees baseball team. As with his more famous quips he observed that “prediction is difficult; predicting the future is especially difficult.” To my surprise, the joke fell, as we say, like a lead balloon. Noone in the large, mainly Italian, audience even smiled. My second joke is a favourite of our chairman, Cosimo Perrotta. It concerns an economist who was visiting some remote installations in an underdeveloped country. The only mode of transport was a rickety old bus, and the economist was the only passenger. During the journey there was a heavy thunderstorm, and the rain was falling on the economist’s head. The bus driver turned to the economist saying: “you don’t need to sit there. Why not exchange your seat?” “With whom?” said the economist.
Time has reduced the power of this story, for nowadays many economists see beyond exchange relationships, exploring such elusive subjects as altruism, fairness, and even happiness. Yet does economics remain the dismal science, with its “gloomy professors”? Certainly jokes about economists are still popular, and Sheila Dow, always up with the times, has devoted the first chapter of her book: Economic Methodology, an Inquiry, (OUP, 2002) to such jokes. For those as yet only mildly addicted, I offer another choice: Caroline Postelle Clotfelter: On the Third Hand. Humor in the Dismal Science, An Anthology (University of Michigan Press, 1996).
For those of you becoming restive at this late hour I want to close by thanking you for the honor you have bestowed on Terence and me with the honorary fellowship, and close with another of Yogi’s jokes: “It ain’t over ‘til its over”. Goodnight.