We all develop wonderful friends over a lifetime. But few become an integral part of one’s perspective on life, challenge your conclusions when you are wrong, confirm your judgment when—occasionally—you may be right, and broaden your horizons at all times and in a civil and engaging way. That was Bill Niskanen during our nearly 40-year friendship.
Just two weeks ago, as he was a “resident” at the Washington Rehabilitation Hospital after major heart surgery, I was with him and Kathy frequently, urging him on in his rehab. While he was tentative physically, he was his old self mentally, as we discussed details of the balanced budget amendment and other issues pending before Congress.
I have thought about our years together since I “recruited” him to the “California Revenue Control and Tax Reduction Task Force” for then-governor Ronald Reagan in the fall of 1972. I was crisscrossing the nation in pursuit of the finest free-market minds I could find (remember, this was before Cato, Heritage, and many of the fine free-market think tanks in D.C. and well before the SPN state-based think tanks). Milton Friedman, Jim Buchanan and others who joined the Reagan team said, “You have to get Bill Niskanen at Berkeley at the Graduate School of Public Policy,” maybe because he had just published a key book on government in 1971, Bureaucracy and Representative Government. That’s when I first met Bill Niskanen.
After our Reagan-as-governor experience, Bill was hired by Ford Motor Company in Dearborn as their chief economist. While in Michigan, Bill translated California’s Prop. 1 of 1973 into Michigan’s successful tax limitation initiative, the Headlee Amendment, in 1978. Bill consulted informally on many more tax-and-spending limits around the nation.
Bill remained Ford’s chief economist until the company decided it would support trade laws that ran counter to Bill’s free-market views. He did the risky–but, as always, the honorable—thing and resigned. Ronald Reagan, who had come to respect Bill as part of our California Tax Reduction Task Force, appointed him to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, where he served (including service as the Acting Chairman) into the second term of the Reagan administration. Bill helped shape the federal spending limit that passed the United States Senate in 1982. Then he went with Cato, and the rest is history.
For the past nearly 15 years, my frequent trips to D.C. have been spent with Bill at his home, and more recently with Bill and Kathy on Capitol Hill. My wife and I have enjoyed many tennis and canoeing weekends with Bill and Kathy at her home, “Clifton,” on the Eastern Shore.
Bill was very competitive on the clay court and didn’t tolerate losing well—but did so with resignation, dignity and lots of excuses.
Bill was a man of great faith and a regular church-goer. His singing voice was so good that he became a part of a highly distinguished choral group that performed each fall throughout the Capitol district and sang in many languages, including Russian and Bill’s ancestral Finnish tongue. He was a regular favorite at the Finnish Embassy.
Bill and Kathy’s latest treasure has been Winston, a young bulldog with an amazing likeness to his namesake. Winston transformed their world, and Bill spoiled Winston rotten.
We will treasure forever our time with the kid from Bend, Oregon, who made it to Harvard, excelled at the University of Chicago’s Economics Department, and who has left a legacy of ideas, works, and leadership unparalleled in the understanding of bureaucracy, government, free markets and human freedom.
It is my good fortune to have been a friend of Bill Niskanen.