Farewell to an irreplaceable economist, teacher, and friend

By Ben Stein, contributor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- About 46 years ago when I was a sophomore at Columbia College, I took my first economics class. The teacher was C. Lowell Harriss, and the class was called "Money and Banking." Professor Harriss had been recommended to me highly by my parents, both economists, who had been classmates of Professor Harriss at the University of Chicago's graduate school of economics, from 1935 to 1937, at the peak of its greatness, when names like Jacob Viner and Frank Knight and Milton Friedman and Aaron Director and George Stigler were in the halls and classrooms.

My mother particularly gushed about how handsome Professor Harriss was and how all the "girls" swooned over his big, blue-gray eyes.

Professor Harriss was a spectacularly good teacher. He made economics easy to follow. His students used his book, which I always found far more accessible than Samuelson's, and we rapidly got into Marshall and Jevons and Ricardo and Say and Keynes and Friedman. The graphs and axes that make up so much of economics were quickly and painlessly taught by the handsome professor from Nebraska via Harvard (as an undergrad) and Chicago (as a grad student and Ph.D).

I took three more courses from Professor Harriss while I was at college and a huge amount of what is my stock in trade as an economist and writer about economics came from that man. He even required us as sophomores to read and understand Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz's classic, "A Monetary History of the United States."

This dense but compelling book laid out the basis for monetarism and is easily among the most important works in the field since "The Wealth of Nations." (When I think that I read it and understood it when I was a teenager -- or at least some of it -- I cry at my present inability to read and understand the directions for assembling my new XM radio.)

For all of this, I am in permanent debt to Lowell Harriss. I am also in his debt for his total availability to students in his office, at dinner, for a hamburger after class, to explain and comment on the economic events of the day. I never had a better teacher in any school.

But it was one phrase that Professor Harriss regularly used that caught my attention and changed my life. Now, bear in mind that even back in 1963, a student at Columbia would have been exposed to considerable anti-business, anti-capitalist sentiment, and I absorbed some of that catechism and was not above ascribing many of America's faults and flaws to the corporate power structure, which was seen as a heartless monster preying upon the innocents of the nation and the world.

But when Professor Harriss started talking about how corporations manage their affairs, he said, "Now assume that the stockholders of the corporation, the owners and beneficiaries of the corporation, are all widows and orphans."

This was an eye-opener indeed. And it made total sense. Of course, except in the rarest of cases in those days, then, and even now, the biggest companies are owned by legions of pension funds, mutual funds, (now, also ETFs and index funds). They are not owned by the Rockefellers or the Astors, as Professor Harriss used to say. They are owned by our parents and by us. The corporations are the people every bit as much as the workers are the people.

This insight, seemingly rarely taught in today's universities, has enabled me to ask -- for example -- why we as a nation would be angry at the oil companies, when we as a nation and as families own the oil companies, when the oil companies employ our fellow Americans at a decent wage, and when the oil companies pay us Americans as savers and retirees oil company dividends. Why would we hate any company without understanding that -- generally speaking, definitely not always -- its managers are simply trying to do the best for the widows and orphans and retirees who own the company? The companies are not a cancer on the society: they are the society.

Professor Harriss let me understand this and I spent the rest of my life thanking him for it. We remained fast friends after college. He and I corresponded for decades. He came to speak at a dinner Columbia gave in my honor years ago. His topic was "The Marginal Utility of Humor." I met him years later when I was a speaker at Harvard Law School's Class Day and he was up there for what might well have been his 65th reunion. He regularly sent me comments on my articles and TV appearances and "chin up" encouragement when the bad guys were pummeling me. And I appreciated every word of it.

He sent me, and many others of his wide circle, tales of his world travels, hilarious New Yorker cartoons from long ago and from now, and updates on his family. His son, Gordon, had been a fraternity brother of mine in Alpha Delta Phi and is now a super lawyer in Manhattan. I counted Professor Harriss as the fastest and most indomitable of pals.

Professor Harriss died on Monday, December 14, the day after Paul Samuelson passed away. I only met Samuelson a few times. He was clearly a great man. But to my way of thinking, Professor Harriss' insight that we are corporate America, almost all of us, and to hate that beast was no less than hating human nature, not much different from hating ourselves, was a lamp unto my feet -- and still is. That one blast of intelligence has cleared away countless cobwebs in my mind and those of my readers. R.I.P., wonderful Professor Harriss. We Jews call the wisest among us "teachers." You are irreplaceable, wise Teacher Harriss, and I will never forget you. To top of page