University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Robert Haveman, RIP

Robert Haveman, RIP, Econospeak, Barkley Rosser

 Robert (Bob) Haveman died on June 18, aged 85.  He had been at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1970, when I first met him, where he served as Chair of the econ dept., director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, and also Director of the LaFollette Institute for Public Policy.  A very policy-oriented economist with a progressive perspective, he published widely on public finance, poverty and social policy, environmental and natural resources economics, and benefit-cost analysis, amI along other things.  He visited at many universities around the world and belonged to many international organizations, including serving as president of the International Public Finance Society. Just this spring he was made a Fellow of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis.  He was a lively and outgoing man, always very friendly, who is survived by his wife and colleague, Bobbi Wolfe, who is at the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he was the first person in his family to go to college and got his PhD in economics from Vanderbilt in 1963. After teaching at Grinnel College, he went to Washington where he became the right-hand man of Senator William Proxmire (D-Wis), who chaired the Joint Economic Committee.  It was from there that he moved to UW-Madison in 1970, having a more progressive view than the rather centrist Proxmire, who was very popular in Wisconsin and had taken over the Senate seat previously held by the late Joe McCarthy. Proxmire was famous for handing out “golden fleece” awardsat press conferences for government spending projects he considered to be wasteful or corruptly satisfying narrow special interests. While indeed Bob was more progressive than Proxmire, his interest in benefit-cost analysis showed a link with “The Prox” in being concerned about the efficiency of government activities and avoiding wasteful spending.

I always got along with Bob, but I must admit that I and several of my more radical fellow grad students tended to sneer at him and give him a bit of a hard time when he first showed up. He seemed to us to represent Establishment political economy and Washington writ large at a time when that was all tied to the war in Vietnam. It was hard to credit Bob for his progressive side, with him not involved in foreign policy at all, but it was also easier to scorn him for his association with Proxmire, who was somewhat more conservative than many other Democrats, such as his fellow senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, who opposed the war in Vietnam and was the main figure behind the starting of Earth Day. Bob would probably have viewed better if he had been associated with Nelson than Proxmire, although the latter’s more centrist and squeaky clean reputation made him enormously popular in Wisconsin.  

While Bob was always friendly to everybody, I know he viewed those of us who gave him a hard time as annoying pests, and I think he long thought that I in particular was kind of a madman, although he never quite outright said so, just vaguely hinted it in later years with a smile.  I am sorry he is gone.

I shall close this with an anecdote that is really about Proxmie, with Bob playing a bit role.  It was in Winter, 1972, and there was a rumor that Proxmire was thinking of joining the race for the presidency. He sis not do so, but there was this moment when it looked like he might, and in that moment he showed up at the UW-Madison econ dept. to give a talk, the only time that I think he ever did so. Needless to say, his super-excited host was Bob Havemen, who ran all about the dept. urging one and all, even us crazy radical grad students, to show up to hear him speak.  I never saw Bob more excited about anything ever, the prospect that The Proz might run, and Bob might end up in some really serious policy position in Washington, as we cynically noted at the time.

So Proxmire gave his talk on the 8th floor of our building with its great view of Lake Mendota behind him.  Of course, he gave his usual stump speech about battling against special interests and government waste and all that. But then one professor, Lau Christenson, who later ran an econometrics consulting firm that I think still exists, asked him a question: “Given that you are opposed to government favors for special interests, how is it that you support import quotas for dairy products to protect Wisconsin dairy farmers?” To this, The Prox just smiled and replied, “Well, after all, I am the senior senator from the state of Wisconsin.” We all laughed, but I wonder to this day if getting that question was what put him off from running for the White House.  I am sure Bob Haveman was not happy about it, may he RIP.

Barkley Rosser