Remembering Bob Ekelund

Robert B. “Bob” Ekelund passed away on August 17, 2023, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. A professor of economics at Auburn University for three decades, he was a prolific scholar and an admired professor. His energy, curiosity, and intellect could not be satiated by the mere challenges of a career as an academic economist, and his appetite for learning extended into music and the arts as well.

Robert B. Ekelund (1940-2023)

As a scholar, Prof. Ekelund’s interests were wide-ranging. In a time of hyper-specialized quantitative economics, he was a generalist capable of writing with lucidity and force on many different topics. He was extraordinarily productive, writing over 200 academic papers and more than two dozen books. Among his books are The Economics of American Art: Issues, Artists, and Market Institutions, coauthored with John D. Jackson and Robert Tollison; The Marketplace of Christianity, coauthored with Robert Hébert and Robert Tollison; Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War, coauthored with Mark Thornton; Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm, coauthored with Gary Anderson, Audrey Davidson, Robert Hébert, and Robert Tollison; and several economics textbooks. Notable among Prof. Ekelund’s textbooks is the number one history of economic thought textbook available today, A History of Economic Theory and Method, coauthored with Bob Hébert. Most recently, his 2022 book with Phil Gramm and John Early, The Myth of American Inequality, revealed the misuse of economic statistics in policy. The diversity of his interests is plain to see.

As a professor, Ekelund managed to confer not only his knowledge, but his inquisitiveness as well, on countless students. He directed over 50 doctoral dissertations and many master’s theses. While I was a graduate student at Auburn, I wrote my dissertation under Andy Barnett’s supervision, but I have good memories of Prof. Ekelund’s teaching. I still remember the mischievous twinkle in his eye as he asked me a simple, incisive question that undermined an argument I had been making involving inheritance laws. I was forced to shore up my reasoning–which was of course his purpose. Prof. Ekelund had good advice on how to navigate the academic world as well. When I stopped by his office to tell him I had taken on a contract writing project to ease the financial strain of graduate school, he listened patiently, but I could tell he was disappointed. “That’s not economics,” he said. Graduate school was not the time to stray from the main objectives: learn economics and finish the degree. I continued with the writing project, but kept the lesson in mind when I reached the dissertation stage. By minimizing distractions and other work, I was able to finish on schedule and avoid the dreaded long-term ABD (all but dissertation).

In the decades since, I saw him from time to time when I would return to Auburn for Mises Institute events. He was always gracious in his conversations with me, and I appreciated his wit and sincerity. He seemed genuinely interested in my career, and indeed he kept up with many of his former students (here is another remembrance from a friend who was also in my cohort at Auburn University).

I remember Prof. Ekelund best as a scholar and professor, but he was also an accomplished classical pianist, artist, gardener, and gourmet. He recorded several CDs, and was a talented painter. Earlier this year, my wife and I were in Taos, New Mexico, the source of inspiration for many of Ekelund’s paintings, and I thought of him as we wandered through several of the art galleries there. We selected a plein air landscape of distant mountains from a local artist, and I wondered if my former professor would approve of the choice. I suppose that is the mark of a good teacher–the student continues to evaluate his own decisions in light of his teacher’s example.

Bob Ekelund’s passing is a loss to us all. But his work, and remembrances of his zest for life, remain behind so that we can all continue to learn from him.

Gary North’s Christian Economics

On February 24, 2022, Gary North died at age 80 after a long battle with cancer. A prolific author, with more than 50 books on economics, history, and Reformed Protestant theology to his credit, as well as thousands of articles (e.g.,, North was influential in conservative Christian thinking about politics and the economy for over 50 years. His work will doubtless remain so for many more years.

Gary North (1942–2022)

North was a leader in the “Christian Reconstruction” movement that was attractive to some conservative (in the theological and political senses of the word) Reformed (Calvinist) Protestants. Coming out of the philosophical and theological work of Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987), the movement was given its distinctive character by Van Til’s student Rousas J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), North’s father-in-law. The Reconstructionist view is that the foundations of modern secular society have crumbled, and Christians have a responsibility to “reconstruct” all of society on biblical principles. This put them at odds not only with secularists, but many within Protestantism who were pluralist in their political views. Reconstructionists gained a reputation as abrasive and divisive in church settings, willing and able to write trenchant responses to all critics. North’s style was forceful and direct: this is how it is; take it or leave it. His rejection of the “if-that’s-OK-with-you” tone of many evangelicals became infamous. It was easy to voice complaints about North’s style; it was not so easy for churchmen to refute his work.

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Marshall, Menger, and Method

Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) produced an economics textbook, Principles of Economics, that in many ways would be recognizable to students of mainstream microeconomics today. He was immensely influential, partly because of his prolific writing, but also because of his creation of a strong legacy. In 1888, Herbert Foxwell wrote, “Half the economic chairs in the United Kingdom are occupied by [Marshall’s] pupils, and the share taken by them in general economic instruction in England is even larger than this.” (Ekelund and Hebert, A History of Economic Theory and Method, 5th ed., p. 345).

Though Marshall was a mathematician before he became an economist, and used mathematics in economics (early in life he translated Ricardo and Mill into mathematics), he recognized that mathematics had its limits. In 1906, he wrote to a friend, Arthur Bowley:

I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules–(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This last I did often.

Alfred Marshall, quoted in Ekelund and Hebert, 5th ed., p. 346.
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Menger, Walras, Jevons, and the Marginal Revolution in Economics

Carl Menger

The “marginal revolution” in economics is usually linked to three men: Carl MengerLéon Walras, and William Stanley Jevons, who wrote on the concept of marginal utility nearly simultaneously in the early 1870s. In 1871, the Austrian economist Carl Menger published his Principles of Economics [Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre]), While the term “marginal utility” came from Friedrich von Wieser (another “first-generation” Austrian), marginality had been anticipated by some earlier thinkers, notably Jules Dupuit (1804-1866). 

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