January of 1996 I was on the junior job market and I had just finished giving a recruiting seminar at the University of Chicago. This was everything a job market seminar at Chicago was supposed to be. I barely made it through the first slide, I spent the rest of the 90 minutes moderating a debate among the people in the audience, and this particular debate was punctuated by Bob Lucas shouting “Will you shut up Derek? Contract theory has not produced a single useful insight.”
Suffice it to say that my job market paper had nothing in common with either contract theory, Bob Lucas, or the Derek in question. But it was the most fun I have ever had in a seminar.
So I was going out to dinner with Tom Sargent and Peyton Young. Peyton was visiting the Harris school for the quarter and we would be going in his car to the restaurant. Actually it was his mother’s car because his mother lived in the area and he was borrowing it while he was visiting. It was one of those Plymouth Satellite or Dodge Dart kinda cars: a long steel plinth on wheels. Peyton warned us that it hadn’t been driven much in recent years and it had just gotten really cold in Chicago so there was some uncertainty whether it would actually start.
We got in with me on the passenger side and Sargent in the back seat and sure enough the car wasn’t going to start. It was making a good effort, the battery was strong and the starter was cranking away but the engine just wouldn’t turn over. After a while Tom says let him have a crack at it. I am sitting there freezing my never-been-out-of-California butt off thinking that this is the comical extension of the surreal seminar experience I just went through. First I had to play guest emcee while they hashed out their unfinished lunchtime arguments, and now I am going to have to get out and push the car through the snow.
But when Sargent got into the front seat there was this look on his face. I know these American cars, he says, you gotta work with them. He leans forward to put his ear close to the dashboard, he’s got the ignition in his right hand and his left hand looped around the steering column holding the gear shift. And then he goes to work. He turns the key and starts wiggling the gear shift while he is pumping the gas pedal. This makes the car emit some strange sounds but apart from that it doesn’t accomplish much and he starts over. He’s mumbling something under his breath about engine flooding, his head is bobbing manically and his eyes are folding down giving the effect of a cross between Doc Brown and Yoda. In the back seat Peyton appears to have total faith in this guy’s command of the machine, meanwhile I am about to start laughing out loud.
After three or four more cycles, he starts ramping up the body English. He is bouncing off the seat to get extra leverage on the gear shift. His ear is right up against the steering wheel, his eyes are shut and from the look on his face you would assume he was straining to heed the car’s wheezing, last dying wish. But then there is a different sound. The dry electric sound of the starter motor starts to give way to the deep hum of internal combustion. The car begins to bounce along with Professor Tom Sargent. Bounce, bounce, bounce, vrum –ayngayngayng– vrum ayng vrum -vrum -vrum, BANG. That backfire knocks me out of my seat, but it just gently opens Sargent’s eyes and Peyton’s look is pretending that he saw all of this coming.
Sargent turns back the ignition, pauses and draws his face back away from the wheel. His head turns toward me and a grin comes over his face. He’s saying here it goes, watch this. He turns the key one last time and the engine rolls over like a cat, stretching out its neck for one more scratch.
“You don’t mind if I drive do you Peyton?”