Armen Alchian, 1914 – 2013

Armen Alchian passed away today at the age of 98. Others have chimed in with their thoughts on Alchian and his work (see here and here, for example) and I thought that I would as well. As many others have noted, Alchian was insightful and clever. He had a unique ability to communicate clever, unique, and insightful ideas in a way that suggested that these ideas were obvious. In fact, these ideas were often profound in both clarifying topics and in inspiring the work of fellow economists.

The aspect of Alchian’s work that I have found most insightful and most challenging is thinking about the economy as a coordination problem. There are few, if any, economists who have done as much in terms of thinking about economics in this light as Alchian did and the profession is much better for his insights.

No doubt, in the next couple of days, there will be excellent discussions of his great works as a scholar and a teacher, but what is perhaps the best biographical information about Alchian is found in his “Principles of Professional Advancement”, in which he provides a light-hearted guide to success in academia and also discusses some of his important papers. I think that this excerpt in which Alchian details an experience during his time as a consultant at RAND does a lot to summarize the inquisitive nature of Alchian’s mind and his astute ability to use the economic way of thinking to analyze the problems at hand:

I like to brag that I did the first “event study” in corporate finance, bank in the 1950s and 1960s. The year before the H-bomb was successfully created, we in the economics division at RAND were curious as to what the essential metal was — lithium, beryllium, thorium, or some other. The engineers and physicists wouldn’t tell us economists, quite properly, given the security restrictions. So I told them I would find out. I read the U.S. Department of Commerce Year Book to see which firms made which of the possible ingredients. For the last six months of the year prior to the successful test of the bomb, I traced the stock prices of those firms. I used no inside information. Lo and behold! One firm’s stock prices rose, as best I can recall, from about $2 or $3 per share in August to about $13 per share in December. It was the Lithium Corp. of America. In January, I wrote and circulated a memorandum titled “The Stock Market Speaks.” Two days later I was told to withdraw it. The bomb was tested successfully in February, and thereafter the stock price stabilized.

That entire speech is filled with similar anecdotes that demonstrate the way in which Alchian thought and how that influenced his research.

Today is a day to sit down with Economic Forces at Work and appreciate the brilliance of Armen Alchian.

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