I can never look at a conference bag without thinking of Mike Denny.
For ten years, Mike was Secretary-Treasurer of the Canadian Economics Association. Of all the decisions he made during that time, none were so important as those that led to the elimination of conference bags.
When Mike took over the running of the Association, the CEA held its annual meetings in conjunction with the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences. The meetings with Congress were generally unsatisfactory. They were held in smaller centres, so fewer people attended. It was hard for the CEA to get the rooms and support it needed. The conference receptions provided inadequate quantities of food and drink. But for Mike the clincher was always "people are paying this big fee to the Congress, and what do they get? A useless conference bag."
Some were sceptical, but Mike was determined to prove that the CEA could hold a successful meeting on its own. He organized the first meetings himself. There was food at the reception - lots of it. Registration fees went down. But, because all fees flowed directly to the Association, revenues went up. Best of all, the dread bags were gone. The conference was an overwhelming success.
It soon became obvious that the Denny recipe worked: hold the conference in a major centre, provide quality boozing and schmoozing opportunities, and people will come. They will happily pay registration fees, which can then be used to bring in keynote speakers, and build an even bigger and better conference next year. In fact, the Denny recipe worked so well, and the Association now has so much money, that it can afford to waste some on conference bags.
Often when I go to international conferences, I'll run into another Canadian, and someone will say "you Canadians, you all know each other." That doesn't just happen. It's a product of having a healthy and dynamic professional association. That, in turn, depends upon the individual efforts of a handful of volunteers. Yes, Mike published in all the best journals - AER, REStat, Econometrica. But his greatest gift to the profession was his vision for a strong and financially viable Canadian Economics Association, and his willingness to sacrifice his time and effort to make that vision a reality. That, and lots of drink tickets.
As Deirdre McCloskey once observed, economists have a way of describing people they approve of, "He's smart. And he's a nice guy, too." That's how Mike's friends will remember him. Sitting outside the main conference building at the CEA meetings, chatting to anyone he knew - which seemed to be everybody. The pride he took in Judi's peonies. Stories of playing on the MIT hockey team. His belief in simplicity - and his willingness to fight for it.
Mike Denny passed away on December 27th, 2013 - the first Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Economics Association to have an asterisk placed beside his name. The family hopes to have a memorial in Mike and Judi's garden next spring.
Update: the Denny family has put together a really beautiful obituary here.