A Portrait of an Economist as a Young Man
A parody of Portrait of an Artist by Joyce, what influenced me in economics
March 18, 2015
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

Alfred when he was 8 years of age had a newspaper route. A truck would deliver the newspapers, and the boy would tie each with a rubber band, put them in sacks hanging from his bike, and ride down the streets throwing papers at houses. Once a month he would ring doorbells and collect payments.

Parents wanted him to spend some, save some, and he did both together. Alfred had a stamp collection, and was a member of a stamp club. He saved stamps that came in the mail, and from post office trash cans. Parents had gifted him with a packet of a thousand world-wide stamps. Alfred traded stamps at the club, and with his paper route money he would go to the stamp store and buy some good ones.

If he bought an ice cream, it would be gone. But if he bought stamps, he would have the pleasure of looking at them for many years, and they would keep their value.

Stamps taught him geography. Togo, Bolivia, Albania, Kuwait, and Eastern Rumelia! And geography was land. Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Bechuanaland, Deutschland! Conquered land, colonial land, disputed land! He could point out the lands on a map, and he saw that wars were all about land.

What Alfred hated was having to pay a sales tax for stamps, other than mint stamps bought at the post office. If a postage stamp costs $1, why should he have to pay extra? It didn't seem fair. He knew his parents also paid a tax on their wages. Also not fair. It would be a while, though, before he understood that nature was more than willing to pay man's tax.

Alfred's father would talk about economic problems. Those shoes that woman there is wearing, he said. Imported from Italy! Americans can make shoes. Why buy Italian? “Maybe people like the style.” Style, schmyle! We can design any style here at home. Imports! That's what's causing workers to lose their jobs.

Taxes! retorted Alfred. It's taxes that make everything more expensive and incomes less. But father blamed imports. “My foreign stamps are imports,” thought Alfred. “And I like them.” When he traded stamps at the club, was this not like countries trading goods?

There was no economics class when Alfred went to high school. He did take physics. Physics taught Alfred what force is. F=MA.

At the university, Alfred took a class in philosophy. He read Socrates and Plato. Alfred loved the dialogues. That was a good style. Given an assignment, he wrote a dialogue, but the teaching assistant said, no, he was supposed to write an plain essay. That was puzzling, since the Socratic method he was learning was in dialogues.

The lectures were good, though, as Professor Hans Meyerhoff taught him to ask two Socratic questions: What do you mean? How do you know?

Alfred did not like the regime of Plato's Republic, but there was one line he liked: do not harm others.

The problem with chemistry was the chemicals. Political science was interesting, but economics had more of a bite. Supply and demand, the economic cross. Samuelson's neoclassical synthesis. But somehow, enlightenment remained elusive. Where was the key to social peace and global prosperity? It was not in the textbooks.

As a boy, Alfred did not like being told what to do. Nor did he wish to tell others what to do. On his own, Alfred read the Austrian school of economics, whose lesson was that when government dictates people what to do, the people become poor and unhappy. Alfred saw on the stamps of the Soviet Union the propaganda of state glorification, but the reality was different. Alfred became a libertarian and read Reason magazine.

It was at a libertarian national conference that enlightenment shined through. It was a debate between an allodial libertarian and a follower of Henry George. The allodialist said once land is discovered or held, full title and all its income belongs to the title holder. The George guy said no, that while private titles are good, the income from land, the rent, belongs to all equally, unless you believe in aristocracy. That answered the tax issue. If taxes there must be, let them not be on the sale of goods like stamps, nor on wages for labor, but from the rent of land, which no man hath created.

Finland, Iceland, Greenland, Bechuanaland, Deutschland! Countries are all about land, and governments protect land, so let nature pay the taxes, and not burden a kid who buys stamps.

War was raging in Vietnam, and the government wanted to snatch Alfred, and send him to the jungles, possibly to his death. Alfred drew the logical conclusion about state power, while others merely protested a particular war. He found his salvation from the military in computer science. Alfred also learned the importance of proper programming.

Alfred would later tie together the ethics of not harming others, the free market, and a government that came from the people, bottom up. The paper route had taught him wages; stamps taught him land, physics taught him force, and philosophy taught him how to question. Economics taught him that social peace and prosperity were within reach, but as Socrates showed, truths would be discovered not just from essays but through dialogue.

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., (May 11, 1946 — June 5, 2021) was an economist who wrote weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary’s commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary’s areas of research included public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.