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FSU Professor James Gwartney Marks 50+ Years in the Classroom


One of America’s most respected economists has lived and taught in Tallahassee for more than half-a-century. Florida State University Economics Professor James Gwartney he has no intentions of quitting the profession he’s loved for so long.

His teaching career began in 1968. America was torn by opposition to the Vietnam War, the counter-culture revolution and the deaths that year of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At Tallahassee’s Florida State University, there were protests, many led by “Radical” Jack Lieberman. There was a student occupation of the president’s office and other expressions of on-campus rage and dissent. Into this maelstrom of strife came a newly minted economics teacher from the University of Washington named James Gwartney. He recalled he was essentially oblivious to the tumult swirling around him.

“I was focusing on my research and developing a record that would get promotion and tenure. And I came with the idea that we’d stay two or three years and see how it works out. And here I am 50 years later!”

Actually, it didn’t take Gwartney long to put himself firmly in the spotlight as a subject matter expert of national consequence.

“I did undertake the writing of the ‘Principles of Economics’ text about four years after I had arrived at FSU. And that has consumed a great deal of my career. That book is now in its 16th edition. It’s been quite an experience and I’ve been honored by the fact that literally hundreds of thousands of students – at least a few hundred thousand – have used the book through the years; not only here but also at a lot of other schools.”

That accomplishment alone would have given Gwartney entre to many high-powered posts in the public or private sector. And indeed, he has often been tapped to provide economic expertise to many organizations, including the Heritage Foundation. He actually was lured away from Tallahassee for a time.

“Actually I did spend a couple of different segments away from FSU. One in 1999 and 2000 was in Washington, DC and I can tell you that Tallahassee is a much better place to raise a family than Washington, DC!” he laughed.

Certainly, given the many changes in the world over the intervening years, the economic landscape for this country and the planet in general must also have changed, right? Professor Gwartney thinks not.

“I certainly don’t think the basic laws of economics have changed. Economics and prosperity are still about getting the institutions right and by institutions I’m talking about things like the legal system for enforcement of contracts and protection of property rights. Things like a monetary policy where you can count on the fact that the inflation rate is going to be low. And having a minimal amount of barriers to both domestic and international trade.”

But even if the laws of economics remain intact, today’s students must surely be very different than those who flocked to Gwartney’s classes in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. For his part, the professor refused to be seduced by the siren song of nostalgia.

“Some of the national polls indicate that students are leaning very much towards socialist ideas and things of that sort. And I guess there’s some sort of statistical evidence that is true nationwide. But something that is often overlooked is that students also have a highly favorable viewpoint towards entrepreneurship. It makes for a mixed bag. Students have a far more favorable view of entrepreneurship than their views of either socialism or capitalism. I think that’s a very positive trend!”

And it is that very appeal of both teaching - and in turn being taught by those students - that has Professor James Gwartney dismissing any thoughts of imminent retirement.

“I really enjoy the interaction with students. I find them open to new ideas and just a joy to interact with and as long as that’s the case, I’ll probably keep teaching.”

That's good news indeed for future generations of students, Florida State University and the entire discipline of economics.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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