Robert D. Tollison, RIP

tollisionThe great Robert Tollison has passed. No one was better than him at seeing the implications of a theory and finding a way to test it. He always had ideas, many adopted by GMU graduate students. A pioneer of sportometrics, public choice, public choice and antitrust, economics and religion, the economic analysis of economists and many other areas.

Bob was an immensely productive scholar with at least 12 books as author or co-author, 22 edited collections, 7 editions of a textbook, 110 articles in books, 220 journal articles, 44 journal notes/comments…and more. He was also senior editor at Public Choice for 17 years and he held positions in government as a Senior Staff Economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (1971-72) and Director of the Bureau of Economics at the Federal Trade Commission (1981-83).

Bob had many, many students.

I will post links to remembrances here.

Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek.

Mark Thornton.

Bryan Caplan.

Ed Lopez.

Peter Boettke’s excellent remarks.

David Henderson.

Bobby McCormick.

Skip Sauer.


Bob was, to his last week, regularly attending seminars and workshops, working with students, and making academic life that that much more interesting for everyone around him. He was an incredibly kind man, without an ounce of pretense. He was what everyone hopes for in a colleague and aspires to in a career.

^ woah, if real

When I left academia for a career in consulting, I went to talk to Bob. He was, of course, very supportive -- which is unusual among academics, who are trained to believe that only a career in the academy has any real value, but very natural to Bob.

He told me about some of his consulting work, and how confidential company data showed that demand and supply elasticities are so much larger than we see in public datasets. I don't know more about that project beyond what he told me, but it seems like a good summary of Bob's approach to life: there are more options out there than you think.

Bob wrote me a reference letter and recommended me to work at a company he was close with. He was always an incredibly supportive person with students and colleagues.

I also remember him whistling loudly hymns while walking down the halls on Monday mornings. Although I never really heard Bob talk about religion outside of an academic framework -- where he indeed made large contributions to the economics of religion.

I had the pleasure of taking his public choice class only 3-4 years ago at Clemson. He was equally concerned with inspiring students as he was with educating them. The motivational speech that he gave on our last day of class was something of legend. He truly seemed as though a man who didn't allow his accomplishments to dilute his care for other people. I know he'll be deeply missed.

Graham, can you please give the gist of Bob's motivational talk you reefer to?

I won't do it justice, but here's the essence: He told us that with the education we received we shouldn’t take a backseat to anybody. He assured us that he had seen and worked with the good and the bad of higher academia, and he believed that we were equipped to be the best. He believed that having a high level of curiosity and a willingness to take chances and be wrong were more important than your academic pedigree.

This is a foolish comment. Anyone with a grasp of history knows that we all have ancestors who were slaves or owned slaves. America abolished slaves long before many other countries. Many people in the north of america were also slave owners.

I learned a lot from Bob at GMU. He was in his office every day doing exactly what we grad students were supposed to do - "keep butt in chair and work." His door was always open, especially if you were struggling to find, or unsure of, a paper idea or dissertation topic. His NCAA book (with Trey Fleisher and Brian Goff) was one of the first to model the NCAA as something different than a public interest organization. That was one of the texts that inspired me to work on sports economics topics. He was also especially friendly to the Austrian economics students. And if you left him unguarded on the basketball court, he would burn you with a jump shot (come to think of it, he would burn you even if you were guarding him). Condolences to his family. Farewell Bob.

Inspirational is absolutely an appropriate descriptor for Bob. He inspired my dissertation at Clemson and sitting in his class was an amazing opportunity to see the ideas just fall out of his head. Every day he heard or read something that he wanted to test (or wanted us to test). Hugely generous with his time and brilliance. Working with him convinced me that I could really do this...and I did. Nowhere NEAR as well as he did, but there's no shame in that. His was a special mind.

Are any of his lectures recorded? It would be great to listen to them

The one thing that comes to my mind about Tollison is his habit of sitting in the front row at seminars and regularly bouncing a ball off of the blackboard behind the speaker. I shall comment no further on this.

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