Excerpts from Daniel McFadden's Charter Day keynote speech

27 March 2001 | On growing up on a farm in North Carolina and his admission to college:

"I had an independent streak as a kid, and would challenge my teachers and parents on politics, social customs, and religion. I enjoyed farm life, despite the hard work, and was very active in 4-H, winning state prizes for my geese and for my soil conservation projects. I thought of myself as clever rather than smart, and my ambition was to become a county farm agent, and perhaps a novelist.

"At age 16, I was suspended from high school for circulating a civil rights petition, and left home to work as a stripper. That's not as lurid as it sounds; I followed behind the milking machines on an uncle's dairy farm in Minnesota. From there, I gained admission by examination to the University of Minnesota. I believe that objective aptitude tests provide an important entry point to college, particularly for kids who do not conform to the social norms of their teachers."

On the work that earned him the Nobel Prize:

"I think of making research contributions as being like dropping stones in a river. Most are washed away, or pushed to one side, but occasionally one will hit in just the right spot and start a process that changes the course of the river. Later, someone may look back, and say 'that's the one that did it.' In truth, the research process is much more agglomerative. The stone that turns the current required the support of one underneath; and if one stone does not divert the river, the next one may."

"The Nobel prize makes science seem like an athletic contest, with celebrities and stars. I understand that at gatherings of Nobel laureates the concentration of egos can indeed approach critical mass. However, in the end, science is about the accumulation of ideas, not about cults of personality."

On California's electricity crisis:

"Consumer decision-making matters to economists because consumers determine the demand side of supply and demand. For example, to predict the impacts of various programs which may be introduced to trim electricity consumption this summer, you need to understand how much and how quickly consumers will moderate electricity use in the face of higher prices."

"Voluntary conservation will not work: the incentives are wrong, and moral fiber is strongest when it is not cut by self-interest. Allowing supply and demand to operate, particularly by using real peak energy prices to encourage large users to conserve electricity or sell power back to the system, is the effective way to limit demand when it matters."

On affirmative action and access to higher education:

"I wish the playing field were as level for women and minorities as it was for me. "

"The university has been unsettled in recent years by the elimination of affirmative action programs. My view is that the whole argument over diversity and affirmative action is misdirected. What we should be asking is why there are not enough university spaces to accommodate all those who can benefit. The right affirmative action program is one that turns away no student who would be better off in university than not."

On the feasibility of zero-emission vehicles in California:

"A lot more work will be done in this area, but one conclusion that will clearly survive is that there are much more effective ways to meet clean air standards than through zero-emission mandates. A fundamental problem is that the prices of gasoline and vehicles do not include the costs of the pollution and congestion they produce. The most direct way to get the incentives right is to place environmental taxes on these products. Then, consumers and manufacturers will gravitate to more fuel-efficient, less polluting vehicles."


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