Reminiscences of Bill Niskanen from Robert Litan

Robert E. Litan, vice president for Research and Policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, sends along his thoughts on the passing of William Niskanen:

I am honored to join the long list of people who knew Bill and are deeply saddened by his loss. I am also perhaps one of his unlikeliest co-authors. In 1998, Bill and I wrote a little book Going Digital! that is one of only a couple of published collaborations ever between Brookings and Cato. It was written in the early days of the Internet and generally made a “hands off” case for it.

After the book was published, the State Department sponsored a speaking tour for the two of us in Spain. I had an unforgettable experience with Bill on the trip, especially in Barcelona, where after we were picked up the airport, we were warned by the State representative there about gypsy pickpockets in the middle of the city. Sure enough, no later than an hour later as the three of us were walking down one of the main thoroughfares in the City, we were surrounded out of nowhere by a throng of about 15 little people wearing veils – they looked like children but in fact were the very gypsies about whom we had just been warned – making a buzzing sound. In just a few seconds they were gone and about 20 steps later Bill discovered they had taken his wallet (I was fortunate to have been wearing a trench coat, so I was spared). We both then quickly ran after them, and unbelievably, they threw the wallet to the ground – without his cash of course – but with all of his other belongings, credit cards most importantly, intact.

I was in amazement, but Bill took it totally in stride as if we had just been on a Sunday stroll in the park. He was the perfect B type personality, alongside my A(+). And we must have appeared like Mutt and Jeff to everyone everywhere we went (those who know Bill knew his size, and my much smaller physical stature).

So I will always remember Bill as being part of an odd intellectual couple. I had a wonderful time writing the book and speaking about it. The whole experience was a privilege I will always treasure. Bill touched me in a very special way, as I know he did countless others. The world was a better place with him here, and it is worse off now that he is gone.

Thank you, Bill.