Remembering Herb

Herbert Stein, 1916-1999.

“A reviewer once said that I was the master of the ‘Don’t Know’ school of economics,” wrote Herbert Stein in his last book, What I Think. And then he added, “I don’t know that I am the master of it, but I surely avow membership in it more openly than most other economists do.”

That mixture of wry humor and openness to further argument endeared Herb to the many friends and admirers who mourn his death today at the age of 83. His embrace of don’t-knowism was real. (“I have always been mystified by international finance since I took a course in it at the University of Chicago 62 years ago,” he wrote in a SlateBreakfast Table” exchange a year ago–almost, but not quite, embarrassing me out of a disquisition on the International Monetary Fund and the sad state of the Russian and Japanese economies.) But his reticence was not grounded in false modesty. Herb well knew how keen was his intellect and how sharp his wit. And, especially in his earlier years, he did not suffer fools gladly–at least if they were stubborn in their foolishness. “Most people–even those who read editorial and op-ed pages–do not want to encounter opposing views,” he mourned in What I Think. “They want to be massaged not informed.”

But mind-massages were not for Herb. He recognized, perhaps better than most of his economist colleagues, how complicated and fast-changing the world can be. And so he kept his mind open to new facts, new ideas whether about economics, ballet, Monica Lewinsky’s contributions to the GDP, or Golden Days (“what produces them for most people has very little to do with politicians”).

Unfortunately one of Herb’s all-time great pieces of parody, written for the Wall Street Journal, on whose Board of Contributors he sat for more than two decades, is not available on the Web. But anyone with access to back copies of the Journal should consult “The Full Marriage Act of 1977,” in which Congress, having expressed its ranked preference for marriages made in heaven, arranged by the participants, arranged through the personals column of New York magazine, or arranged by mothers, undertakes to provide “spouses of last resort.”

Herb was as ready for new adventures as he was for new ideas. How many economists of Herb’s distinction, accomplishments, and years would, for example, undertake to write for an online magazine startup? Yet, even before Slate moved from Kinsleyspace to cyberspace, Herb signed up to moderate the magazine’s ” Committee of Correspondence.” And how fewer still would be those with the daring (and the sense of humor) to top off that taxing experiment with an even bolder venture: ” Dear Prudence.” Slate’s original adviser to the public on matters of morals, manners, and macroeconomics was, in fact, none other than Herbert Stein, former adviser to presidents. Herb did it anonymously, of course (though a sharp-eyed reader might have guessed from the drawing of “Prudence” that accompanied the column if they hadn’t already been tipped off by the tone). But Herb enjoyed it so much–and he did it with such flair–that I don’t think he would mind my revealing the secret.

A nd he did enjoy it. “One cure for unrequited love,” Prudence reminded a lovelorn reader, “is requited love. There are other cures also, such as devotion to the study of the Finnish language.” To a reader worried about being bad at small talk, Prudence counseled, “You are making too much of this. What everyone wants in a conversationalist is not a good talker but a good listener. You could be Oscar Wilde and no one would go home from a party saying, ‘Gee, Oscar was witty tonight.’ Many would go home saying, ‘Gee, I was witty tonight.’ ” In the day of automatic door unlockers, should a man still walk around a car to unlock the door for the woman he is escorting? Absolutely, Prudence replied, noting the opportunity thus afforded for “sweetly kissing her on the cheek. Modern gadgets will not do all that and real men don’t want them to. Something has to be left for the men to do.” As for the shy advice-seeker worried “about the possibility of having to kiss a girl,” Prudence replied, “If that situation arises, you will have no problem. Perhaps you will ‘have’ to kiss her because she has kissed you. In that case your spontaneous, unpondered reaction will be to kiss her back. Your problem will not be hesitancy about kissing but addiction to it.”

Herb was deeply saddened by the death of his wife, Mildred, a few years ago. He wrote about his loss only indirectly, in what was surely the most popular of his “It Seems to Me …” columns in Slate, “Watching the Couples Go By.” Why, he asked, as he watched husbands and wives walking up the hill to the Kennedy Center for a performance, “is this basic woman so valuable to the man whose hand or arm she is holding?” And in his exploration of the question, it was clear that he had in mind the wife with whom he had “walked up that hill to the Kennedy Center many times.”

Herb once set down a list of “unfamiliar quotations,” sayings that you won’t find in Bartlett’s but that “resonated” with him. The authors ranged from Milan Kundera and Dante to Richard Nixon, whom he served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. He also included an aphorism of his own: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Sadly, that was true of Herb himself.