Alfred Kahn – An Appreciation

by on December 28, 2010 · 12 comments

I was very sad to learn this morning of the death of Alfred Kahn, the brilliant economist known as “the father of airline deregulation.”  He was 93.  He was a brilliant, gracious and gregarious man who never failed to have a smile on his face and make those around him smile even more.  He will be missed.

Kahn has been an inspiration to an entire generation of regulatory analysts and economists. His 2-volume masterwork, The Economics of Regulation, has served as our bible and provided us with a framework to critically analyze the efficacy of government regulation. I have cited it in more of my papers and essays than any other book or article. The book was that big of a game-changer, as was Kahn’s time in government.  A self-described “good liberal Democrat,” Kahn was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board in the mid-1970s and promptly set to work with other liberals, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, and Ralph Nader, to dismantle anti-consumer cartels that had been sustained by government regulation. These men understood that consumer welfare was better served by innovative, competitive markets than by captured regulators, who talked a big game about serving “the public interest” but were typically busy stifling innovation and market entry.

His academic and policy achievements were significant, but what I will most remember about him is that, in a field not known for lively personalities or exciting discussions, Kahn was a consistent source of great wit and entertainment. He always managed to make even the most dreadfully boring of regulatory topics interesting and entertaining. Everyone would go away happy from a Fred Kahn talk.  Moreover, in a policy arena characterized by bitter intellectual bickering and endless bad-mouthing, Kahn always rose above the fray and held himself out to be a model of maturity and respectfulness. I have never heard a single person say a bad word about Alfred Kahn. Not one. That’s saying something in the field of regulatory policy!

One quick story about one of my interactions with Fred.  Back in 1994, someone in DC was hosting a lunch on telecom and regulatory policy and Kahn was the guest of honor. Knowing this in advance, I brought along my copy of The Economics of Regulation hoping for an inscription from Fred.  I handed it to him — I think my hands were shaking as if I were a teenage girl meeting the Jonas Brothers — and asked Fred for a simple autograph. He took a close look at my well-worn book, with scribblings in every margin, Post-It notes all over it, and every other page dog-eared for one reason or another.  The book was that important to me.  Seeing this, Fred flashed me one of his signature big grins and laughed as he wrote on the first page: “To a man of obviously excellent judgment!”  He handed it back to me and said, “I wish everyone cared enough about my book to deface it like that!”

We did, Fred. We did. Thank you for it, everything you taught us, and the example you set for all of us. You will not be forgotten.

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