The Great Leland Yeager has Passed

Leland Yeager has passed at the age of 93. Yeager was the last of that remarkable group of scholars–including Buchanan, Tullock, Coase, Nutter–that made Virginia political economy. Yeager was a polymath perhaps best illustrated by The Yeager Mystique an appreciation by William Breit, Kenneth G. Elzinga and Thomas D. Willett written some twenty years ago (quoted below). His work on monetary theory and international monetary relations remain of great value today.

His facility with languages was legendary:

Another doctoral student, the president of the Graduate Economics Club, was working with Yeager (in Yeager’s capacity as Director of Graduate Studies) to bring Maurice Allais to the University of Virginia for a colloquium. Yeager passed any correspondence from AliĆ”is on to the club’s president for a response. The correspondence was in French.

Nonplussed by what he mistakenly considered Yeager’s challenge to him, the club’s president decided to retaliate. With the aid of a graduate student in another department, he responded to Yeager with a letter written in Sanskrit. Yeager was oblivious to the ruse. Innocently, he replied in Sanskrit, saying how pleased he was that the club’s president knew this language.

In a faculty of great teachers he was regarded as primus inter pares:

Sometimes he would invite students for a weekend at his Charlottesville residence, where he provided excellent cuisine and wine and conversations which could sometimes lead to a publishable manuscript. A fascinating instance is provided by this lucky house guest: “I happened to ask him some questions on a topic in monetary theory. Well, Leland immediately brought out his tape recorder, and for the next several hours I proceeded to ask him questions, which we then discussed fully. Every few minutes he would summarize the discussion on his tape recorder. Very early the next morning I could hear Leland typing away at his typewriter. When I got up, he presented me with 23 pages of transcript – he had typed up all that we had recorded the night before. We eventually converted that transcript into an article which was published by a major journal. I don’t think I will ever be able to duplicate the excitement I felt during that discussion with Leland into the wee hours of the night.

See Tyler’s personal remembrance below.

Comments

Even among Indian economists very few know Sanskrit. For an American economist to learn that language, along with several others, at a time when most Americans would not have heard of it is indeed admirable. I wonder if being a polyglot influenced his thinking in any way.

Bibek Debroy, the economist who is a member of the Indian Planning Commission, is a Sanskritist, and a translator of both the Indian epics into English.

Yes and Cowen recommended his translation of Ramayana. Amartya Sen is also a sanskritist and has a piece on how to promote the language in India . But for Indians whose mother tongue derives from sanskrit learning the lingo is relatively easier than for an American. That Yeager could make a mark as an outstanding economist while mastering several languages, sanskrit being one of them, is truly admirable.

Few Greeks can speak ancient Greek unless they learn it in school. I can't. Also I wonder if Sanskrit is like Hebrew, a dead language resurrected? So likely, if so, today's pronunciation is different from yesteryear's.

Bonus trivia: I can't read Beowolf (old English) either, can you?

Ray sanskrit is not like Hebrew, a dead language resurrected. Although it is no one's mother tongue ( there is a village in a south indian state where everyone speaks the lingo but that is an exotic joint!) it never died. It is the language of Hindu ritual in temples as well as in life cycle ceremonies. Incidentally, Amartya Sen says that although it is now associated with religion, Sanskrit has more works defending atheism and materialism than any other classical language.

Ram Gopal - But to be perfectly honest, I think there are more Jews who can speak in Hebrew than the number of Hindus who can speak in Sanskrit.

Sanskrit was very much a living language with a vibrant scholar community even 100 years ago. I think there has been a precipitous decline in the past 70 years. Primarily because of the almost slavish celebration of materialism and modernity in the modern Indian state (across the political spectrum), and the disinclination in the public to learn languages that are not immediately "useful"

An interesting coincidence.

You have a Bloomberg column on whether there are any worthwhile intellectuals on the right, or left.

But we know that Yeager was an important thinker on issues of monetary policy, international economics, and inflation. He was an empiricist (like his Experiences With Stopping Inflation) and a theoretician.

I took a class he taught at UCLA on libertarian theory. David Henderson was in the class, and we sparred. Yeager was such a gentleman and so very clear about his arguments. I think he could have, and should have, been more well-known, but I think his personal reserve was substantial and he wasn't willing to put himself into the limelight the way that Friedman did.

B.B. Can you tell me a little more about what we sparred about? Also a hint about your name?

I am second to none in my admiration of Leland, so I know he would not want an apocryphal story about him to remain in circulation even after his death. He did not know Sanskrit. Once, in a conversation with me, my wife, and others at Auburn, some of us were joking about his boundless knowledge, including his command of Sanskrit. Leland became very upset, in his characteristic way, and insisted that this story was completely false. He was nearly angry with us for contributing to the continued spread of a false claim about his abilities.

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