As one of Canada’s foremost monetary scholars, David Laidler warrants a biography of some heft. And if you flipped through its pages, you would read a tale of rare intellect and impeccable timing that would unfold a Zelig-like journey through 20th Century economic thought.
“I have been very lucky,” said the Western Economics professor emeritus.
This weekend, Laidler will be honoured with the 2015 Thomas Guggenheim Prize for the History of Economic Thought. Recognizing a lifetime of achievement, the Guggenheim Prize is presented bi-annually by the Thomas Guggenheim Program at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Laidler will deliver his Prize Lecture, The interactive evolution of economic ideas and experience – The case of Canadian inflation targeting, Saturday at the Guggenheim Conference.
“I am astonished. I didn’t think I was anywhere near that. I never gave the possibility of receiving the award a moment’s thought,” said Ladler, only the third recipient of the prize. University of Toronto professor emeritus Samuel Hollander, a former Laidler classmate at the London School of Economics in 1958-59, won the award in 2013. “The two previous winners were very distinguished. I am surprised they think I am that distinguished.
“Even given that it’s a ‘lifetime award,’ I can still think of half a dozen people who should be there before me.”
Laidler grew up an only child in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, where the family home was damaged three times by bombing raids during the Second World War – once quite seriously. Laidler was home for all three raids hiding under stairs or under the steel-topped kitchen table.
“This was unusual for the town, which wasn’t attacked all that often. I just lived on an unlucky block, I think,” he said. “But people did die, though I wasn’t scratched. The experience impressed on me early and deeply the role that luck – good and bad – can play in determining the turns a life can take. I wonder nowadays whether perhaps this experience is one of the roots of my inability to swallow the view that all will be well with society if you simply let people make their own choices and take the consequences.”
As a teenager, he worked in his father’s fish-and-chips shop, selling cod and chips for a shilling – cheap even by the standards of the 1950s. “I learned that we really were not quite as far socially from these folk as my mother liked to pretend – a salutary lesson that stuck,” he said.
In school, he showed signs of a clever intellectual combatant early on. One particular memory involves the trouble he raised after comparing the Rev. Billy Graham’s speaking style to that of Adolf Hitler during a compulsory religious studies class.
“That was one of my more successful efforts, as I then thought, at showing up a teacher,” Laidler said.
As the first member of his family to attend secondary school, he charted his own course. “I didn’t know a thing about anything and I didn’t have anybody around to give me advice,” he said. “But I went to school, it worked out and I didn’t want to leave. The only way not to leave was to go to university.”
He attended the London School of Economics, and, after graduating, faced a perceived choice between the Army and graduate school. He chose the latter – although his ‘radical’ past worked against him at first.
His mother, an ardent member of the British Conservative Party, made Laidler join the Young Conservatives, a group he fled in 1956 to join the Socialists Society. “I can tell you a lot about how students get radicalized, because I was,” he said.
When he applied to graduate school, the United States denied his first effort at a visa.
“They probably thought I was going to subvert the Republic,” he laughed.
A letter from a Conservative Member of Parliament reassured officials in the former colonies of Laidler’s purely academic intentions, and he headed off to Syracuse University for masters work and then on to the University of Chicago for his doctorate.
At the University of Chicago, Laidler was a research assistant for Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz’s legendary tome, Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, widely considered the definitive work on economic history still today. In fact, Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, in part, for work related to A Monetary History.
In 1963, he joined the University of California, Berkeley during a “relaxed and tolerant time, at least until the campus troubles started in ’65. But once again, most of the best memories should not be published.”
In 1966, he left Berkeley as the pressures of the Vietnam War started to collapse on every draft-age man in the country. Green Card holders, like Laidler, were eligible for the draft,
“Suddenly, I was in real and imminent danger – my deferment (granted because I was a university teacher) was lifted,” he said. “I passed the pre-induction medical and, while all this was going on, the university either couldn’t or – as I think more likely – wouldn’t help. Since they were drafting 30,000 a month at that time, and the usual lag between medical and receipt of an induction notice was 10-14 days, I left very quickly.”
He returned to Great Britain, first as a lecturer at the University of Essex and then as a professor at the University of Manchester. In 1975, Laidler joined Western as a professor of Economics for many years, the department chair for three years and now a professor emeritus.
“From the outset, Western was (and remained) a department that took its standards from the international community – it wasn’t interested in just being the ‘best in Canada,’” he said. “This was a more distinctive attribute then among Canadian departments than it is now, and it made us the object of a certain amount of suspicion, particularly within the university, where, in my view, many people who should have known better never really appreciated how good we became.
“This attitude hampered the department’s progress.”
He speaks highly of his academic life on campus – although his foray in administration was an admitted stumble. To this day, it is the faces of the colleagues and students who bring back the strongest memories.
His body of work cannot be contained there, however. His broadest influence comes, arguably, through his textbooks, The Demand for Money – Theories and Evidence and Introduction to Microeconomics, both of which went through four English language editions and were published in numerous other languages.
“Probably, The Demand for Money was my biggest success. Many people over the years have told me how it helped them with macro-core and even money field exams and their equivalents,” he said. “I sometimes let myself think it has had more influence than a simple citation count would suggest.”
But it was his two books on the history of monetary economics – The Great Canadian Disinflation: The Economics and Politics of Monetary Policy in Canada, 1988–1993 and Two Percent Target: Canadian Monetary Policy Since 1991 – that give Laidler the most satisfaction.
“My reasons for coming to Canada, for remaining an academic, for staying at Western, were many and various,” he said. “But always among them was the desire to find the time and the intellectual space to try to fill the gap in the literature created by the absence of a systematic history of the development of macro-economics. If the end product leaves things to be desired, I have no one to blame but myself for that, because I had the chance to do my best, and it is a very lucky academic who can say such a thing.”
Last year, Laidler experienced a well-deserved renaissance in the popular press after Lynn Patterson, HBA’83, was appointed as deputy governor of the Bank of Canada. Her rise put Western economists at four of the top six positions at the bank, including governor, senior deputy governor and two of four deputy governor posts. All four were products of “a golden era of economics” at Western; all four studied under Laidler.
That connection was reintroduced to a new generation through a Globe and Mail article, Bank of Canada appointment highlights Western’s economists, exploring that amazing time on campus.
Laidler has few regrets. His mind occasionally wanders off to how his career would have turned out if he had been able to stay longer in the United States and find his place in the profession there.
“That move out of the U.S. was forced on me. I didn’t choose it, and it was horribly disruptive of my ability to keep in touch and keep up for two or three years – a long time at that stage of a career,” he said.
His “biggest mistake” was becoming department chair at Western.
“I’m sure I was not right about every decision,” he said of his brief tenure. “But all of this came out pretty well overall, and I left the department better than I found it. It was an extremely taxing time, though, and I didn’t enjoy it.”
The move codified a personal belief, slowly solidifying since his days at Berkeley, that times in the academe are changing.
“(University administrators) have become professionals and detached from the academic values that I have cherished since the very beginning of my career,” he said. “Providing a university system for 20 or 30 per cent is not like providing it for 3 or 5 per cent. Of course, old academics like me are always exaggerating the virtues of the old days.”
When pressed about legacy, Laidler remained hesitant.
“It would be nice to think I didn’t totally waste my time,” he laughed.
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Editor’s note: David Laidler’s reflections are taken from a 2015 interview with Western News editor Jason Winders, as well as personal reflection by Laidler recorded by journalist Robert Leeson.