An Important Flight

Courtesy of unsplash.com

By Professor Michael H. Moffett, Guest Writer

I was living in Berkeley, working for an environmental consulting firm. I had been back in D.C. for some meetings, and was flying back across the country to see friends in Denver on the way home. I loaded up and sat down next to a very wild-looking old man.

About 30 minutes into the flight the old fellow pulled out this large orange tome—which I recognized immediately. It was the CONAES study, a huge study on the future of energy for the U.S. economy. I knew the study wasn’t public yet; that had been part of the subject of my meetings in D.C. So I had to ask him how he came by it.

He introduced himself as Ken Boulding. The name was vaguely familiar, but I was not sure. He said he was an economics professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and had been part of the working group on the study. (He was indeed listed inside the front cover as part of the large research group.) He had a fascinating way of talking, a bit of a stutter, but kind eyes and a very soft manner. When he talked it was like he was wandering through stacks of books, a lifetime of knowledge, but quite eclectic in fields. We talked and talked for hours.

Kenneth E. Boulding

As the flight neared Denver, we were informed Stapleton (the old Denver airport before the new one was built) was snowed-in and closed. We would be setting down for the night in Omaha (or Lincoln, I don’t really recall which). By the time we landed it was near midnight, and they bussed us to some hotel somewhere. There weren’t enough rooms so some of us doubled-up. I shared a room with my new friend, and we continued our wandering conversations. We were back on the plane by 7:00 a.m.

One of our many topics of conversation was graduate school. I was tired of my job, didn’t like the people I was working with, and was pondering going back to try my hand at a Ph.D. But I had not really thought hard about it. He listened to my interests and possible school choices and then promoted Colorado. But then he debated his own recommendation—with himself—since he had spent more than 20 years on the faculty at Michigan previously. But then once again concluded that Boulder would be the better choice. The last thing he said to me as we unloaded in Denver was to be sure and consider Boulder, and if I did, to come look him up. He thought it was a good program with some interesting faculty, and a beautiful place to live at that.

He was right about all of that. Several years later I did just that, reintroducing myself to him in a meeting with emeritus faculty. I recounted our conversation. He smiled, shook his head, said he didn’t remember me or our conversations, but wished me well.

Kenneth E. Boulding was born in England and trained at Oxford, furthering his studies at Chicago and Harvard. His work had been commented on by John Maynard Keynes, and he had collaborated with Joseph Schumpeter. He is credited with founding a stream of economic thought called general systems theory or biological economics. He was nominated for—but never won—the Nobel Prize for economics. He passed away in 1993.

The moral of my story: Listen carefully to the whackadoodle sitting next to you on your next flight. It might change your life. It did mine.

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Michael H. Moffett is an associate professor of finance and holds the Continental Grain Professorship in Finance at Thunderbird School of Global Management.

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