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Robert Ekelund (1940-2023)

Bob Ekelund, emeritus professor of economics at Auburn University, died on Thursday. On September 20th he would have celebrated his 83rd birthday. Bob was chairman of my dissertation committee.

I enrolled in Auburn’s PhD program in 1982. I first learned of Bob a few years earlier, I think because I’d heard praise of his and Bob Hebert’s excellent textbook on the history of economic thought. But I had never met Bob E. until I arrived in Auburn in September 1982. Roger Garrison introduced me to Bob on what happened to be Bob’s 42nd birthday, which we celebrated that evening with a party at Roger’s home.

Bob taught the 1982 Fall quarter PhD Microeconomic Theory course, in which I learned more than I can describe. Although the assigned text was Milton Friedman’s Price Theory, much of the course involved analyzing microeconomic issues in a way that – I realized only later – would have been done by Armen Alchian. Bob wasn’t a student of Alchian, and nor do I believe that he was consciously aware that his manner of analyzing microeconomic issues was especially Alchian-esque. But it was indeed Alchian-esque. This fact is to Bob’s great credit as an economist. The formal equilibrium analyses that constitute Friedman’s text were background in the course; the forefront of the course consisted of Bob and the six or seven students in that class discussing different microeconomic propositions, every one of which had real-world relevance.

Soon after the Fall quarter began several people died from swallowing Tylenol laced with poison. This tragedy was big, national news. Bob came into class a day or two after this news broke and said “Each of you write a paper on the economics of these Tylenol deaths.” I remember being confused about just what the assignment involved. “What particular aspect of these deaths should we analyze?” I asked. Bob replied, “You decide.” I figured out only later that by allowing each of us to choose the particular aspect of the tragedy to analyze, Bob was testing us on our abilities to discern the economic relevance of a real-world event.

I don’t recall much about that paper that I wrote 41 years ago, except that (1) I focused on the role of brand names, (2) when handing the paper in to Bob I was quite uncertain – nervous, even – about its contents, and (3) I was thrilled and surprised to have gotten a high mark on the paper.


When I enrolled at Auburn I didn’t intend to write my dissertation under Bob, but – happily for me – that’s the way matters worked out (with the other two members of my dissertation committee being Randy Holcombe and Jim Long). Although I’m certain that Bob played a huge behind-the-scenes role in helping me to land my first job, at George Mason, in 1985 – his close friend and co-author Bob Tollison was then on GMU’s faculty – not once did Bob ever mention to me his efforts to assist me in landing that post.

I’ll soon write more about Bob, including about his enormous generosity and great skill in co-writing papers with me early in my career.

I’ve always been very proud to be one of Bob’s students, and I’ll always be so. He was a deeply insightful and creative microeconomist, one of the world’s leading experts on the history of economic thought, a superb teacher and mentor, and a tireless worker. He was also enviably talented at painting and at playing the piano. And he was a spectacularly good chef.


My sincere condolences to Bob’s long-time partner, Mark Thornton.

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