Cornell University

January 15 2010

"Festschrift" Honors Briggs

Tribute by social scientists tracks economist's influence

A string of people stretched for blocks in downtown Detroit that September day in 1958.

They were in line to sign up for unemployment benefits.  America – particularly Michigan – was in a deep recession.

The sight startled Vernon M. Briggs Jr., then a University of Maryland undergraduate in town visiting his college roommate.

"I'd never seen unemployed people face to face before.  These were not statistics; they were human beings and they were all out of work," he said in a 2006 interview excerpted in a new book, "Human Resource Economics and Public Policy:  Essays in Honor of Vernon M. Briggs Jr." (http://www.upjohninst.org/publications/titles/hrepp.html).

The Detroit sight headed Briggs -- now an ILR emeritus professor of industrial and labor relations -- to a career in labor economics that would influence many in the field, including Charles J. Whalen '82, editor of the book, published in November by the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

The research institute, based in Kalamazoo, Mich., describes Briggs' contributions to the discipline "as a model of scholarship aimed at achieving a more humane economy."

Known as a "festschrift" – a German word which means "festival writing" -- the tribute includes 10 essays. They span public policies pertaining to employment, education, training, immigration, rural labor markets and other subjects to which Briggs has contributed his scholarship.

They are written by former students and colleagues he has taught or worked with during his career at both Cornell and the University of Texas at Austin, where he taught for 14 years before coming to the ILR School.  Briggs taught at ILR from 1978 to 2007.

Whalen, now director of Utica College's Department of Business and Economics and an ILR visiting fellow, said Briggs changed the course of his life.

In an interview, Whalen described starting his undergraduate studies at Cornell "deeply interested in the challenges facing working families, but was soon troubled that economics didn't seem to speak to their most pressing concerns."

"This was … a time of high cyclical unemployment, rapid inflation, and widespread plant closings. Yet, economics seemed to suggest markets had all the answers and government was most often the problem," Whalen said.

"Then I enrolled in Vernon's 'Human Resource Economics' course," he said.  "Economics suddenly became the study of flesh-and-blood human beings: unemployment was examined as a serious problem, assumptions of standard theory were challenged, and attention was given to the constructive possibilities of public policy," he said.

"Before taking his course, I would have never imagined becoming an economist; by the end of the semester, I couldn't imagine pursuing another career," Whalen said.

After graduating from ILR, Whalen began the Ph.D. program in economics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied with Ray Marshall, a Briggs colleague who was U.S. secretary of labor during the Carter Administration.  Marshall is one of the book's essayists.

"Vernon and Ray are part of a venerable tradition in labor economics and industrial relations. It's the tradition of John R. Commons and other institutional economists, whose research paved the way for workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, minimum wages, public employment and training programs, and anti-employment discrimination laws," Whalen said.

"The long shadow of their work continues today in efforts to find innovative ways to reduce joblessness," he said.

Another Briggs' student, William Curington of the University of Arkansas, writes in the book that his career as a labor economist was launched when Briggs stepped into a wastebasket, but kept right on lecturing.

"… I was sleepwalking through the undergraduate economics program at the University of Texas and sitting in Dr. Briggs' labor economics class.  He was vigorously making a point when his misstep off the small classroom stage produced a roar of laughter but did not break his train of thought.  He woke me up; I thought, 'Man, I want to be as passionate about my life's work as this guy.'"