Professor emeritus of economics passes

December 27, 2013

Walter OiWalter Oi, the Elmer B. Milliman Professor Emeritus of Economics, best known for his role in ending the military draft in the 1970s, died in his sleep Tuesday night at the Friendly Home in Brighton. He was 84.

Oi, an authority on applied economic theory and labor markets, served on the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force. His analysis of the unseen costs of military conscription played an important role in convincing President Richard Nixon and Congress to end the military draft.

In reflecting on those times, Oi pointed out that the commission was truly a Rochester operation with University of Rochester President W. Allen Wallis lobbying Nixon and his advisers for the all-volunteer force. Before Nixon was sworn in, Wallis asked William H. Meckling, then dean of the University’s Graduate School of Management, to assemble a research team with Oi as one of its members. In less than 10 days, the team prepared a position paper that developed a plan to end conscription. The idea for a presidential commission grew out of that position paper.

Oi’s influence on U.S. public policy continued in later years as he served as vice chair of the President’s Commission on Employment of People with Disabilities. Oi also worked as a consultant to the Department of Defense and the National Commission on State and Workmen’s Compensation Laws.

Oi earned his doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago in 1951. He taught at the University of Washington, Northwestern University, and Iowa State University before joining the University of Rochester faculty in 1967. He spent six years—from 1976 to 1982—as chair of the Department of Economics. His research on employment, wages, prices, the economics of health and safety, and the effects of disabilities have earned him international recognition and broad scholarly acclaim.

During World War II, Oi spent three years in internment camps for Japanese Americans at Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, Calif. and Camp Amache in Granada, Colo. By that time, Oi was well aware that he was losing his eyesight, a fact that had a profound impact on his choice of career.

“My father told me he decided not to pursue the sciences because he was afraid he might blow something up,” said his daughter Eleanor Oi, director of orientation at the University. “Since he was good in mathematics and social sciences, he selected a career in economics.”

Oi was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993. Two years later, he was named a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association for his intellectual achievements and contributions to the field. Oi was also a distinguished fellow of the Society of Labor Economists and a fellow of the Econometrics Society. In 2000, Oi received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service for his work leading to the adoption of an all-volunteer military.

Stanley Engerman, the John Munro Professor of Economics at the University, remembers Oi as an “incredible person” who advanced the field of economics under personal handicaps.

“Two of Walter’s articles are classics,” said Engerman. “In one article, he looked at labor as a quasi-fixed factor of production. The second one used Disneyland as a case study in determining how a monopoly works out its pricing policy.”

Engerman also recalls Oi’s eccentricities, particularly his ability to use apparently irrelevant information to explain anomalies.

“Walter explained that people preferred apple pies only when 12-inch pies were offered,” said Engerman. “But when seven-inch pies were available, most people chose anything but apple. The reason is that 12-inch pies needed to be shared by people, and apple was typically the one flavor everyone could agree on.”

The University of Rochester saw evidence that Oi would be a valuable addition to the faculty when it recruited him in the late 1960s. In remarks prepared for the Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy in 1990, Meckling said that Oi was prevented from flying into Rochester because of a terrible winter storm.

“By nightfall, I was snowbound at home; the telephone rang, and it was Walter advising me that he was at the train station in Chicago, had abandoned his flight plans, but was preparing to board the train to Rochester,” recounted Meckling. “The next morning, I had another call from him originating at a motel adjacent to the campus. I couldn’t get from a suburban home to the campus, none of the faculty could get to the campus, but Walter had gotten there from Chicago.”

Oi is survived by his wife of 44 years, Marjorie Robbins; his two daughters Jessica (Kevin Leclaire) and Eleanor (Jeff Wigal); his sister, Mary T. Oi; and three grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in Oi’s memory be made to Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. (San Rafael, Calif.), the University of Rochester, or a charity of one’s choosing.

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