Friday, May 18, 2012

Barney Groten - Visionary

Today I learned of the death of Dr. Barnet Groten - the man who gave me my first job as an economist.

In the spring of 1988 I was asked by Don Murry - one of my professors at The University of Oklahoma if I would be interested in discussing a research position at the new Sarkeys Energy Center on OU's campus.

The building was not even finished, but the head of the Energy Center, Dr. Barnet Groten, was already busy working out the details of what was to be accomplished there.

I met Dr. Groten at a Greek restaurant famous for its gyros and for over an hour we discussed his vision for America's energy future.

Bear in mind, this was before anyone had uttered the phrases "global warming", "going green" or "carbon footprint".  It did not matter.  Barnet Groten was two decades ahead of everyone.

He told me that he believed that America was falling perilously behind the rest of the world in the area of research and development into alternative energy supplies and in developing more cost-effective and environmentally friendly delivery systems from traditional energy sources like coal, petroleum, natural gas and nuclear power.

At that lunch he offered me a job - but not just any job.  He offered me a chance to be his only research assistant.  I would be in charge of pouring over thousands of regulatory briefings, court cases, public utility rates cases, economic and energy-related journal articles and data bases from all over the world.  It would be my job, he explained, "to discover where America is failing" in meeting the energy needs of the coming century.

It is worth mentioning two things here.  First, I was scared to death that this task would be so over my head that failure would be a better outcome than what I would achieve.  Second, Dr. Groten always smoked and/or fidgeted with his pipe while calmly explaining everything he thought I would need to do, and why he thought I would be successful doing it.  I did not want to let this very kind, incredibly humble man down.

So, during the next 18 months I poured every ounce of my economic brain into this effort.  The law students at the OU Law School must have thought I was one of them because I holed up in the same research room day after day reading, studying and pounding my fist on the desk when hours of research would come to a dead end.

During that time I learned that the very nature of research (as Dr. Groten kept telling me) is to learn from what does not work so you can find the path toward what does work.  I learned so much about the flaws of government-run, or government-regulated markets.  I learned how to use a computer to create graphics (no laughing please, it was 1989...) and I learned that turning in a paper 82 pages in length (I am not kidding) was too long for publication.

Dr. Groten never told me that any work we would submit for publication in a journal would have to be around 12 pages with an ocean of footnotes.  So, when I turned in my first 82 page report he told me it was too long and that my choice of words was too fancy. 

A month or so later I turned in a 31 page report.  Still too long.

When I finally produced a paper that would ultimately be published - two years later - I could not have been more pleased.  Dr. Groten, sensing my excitement, told me that I was now the world's foremost expert in why America's energy markets were not pursuing energy R&D.  I am quite sure that he only said that to make me feel good, but that was his style.  Ever the gentleman and the perfect boss.

By the way, every thing he told me that I would find was proven to be true. 

Twenty years before anyone even noticed the lack sufficient R&D endeavors in America's energy markets - and the implications of it - Dr. Barnet Groten, tapping on his pipe, offered up a prophecy that is now coming true today.  That is that as long as government regulators are in charge of determining the economic policies of those who would supply our energy needs, America would lag behind other nations and would suffer the consequences as energy supply issues became more important over time.

I am grateful to have worked for such a kind genius.

I hope they allow pipes in heaven....

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