In Memoriam: Jerry Ellig

I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn yesterday that my friend and one-time teacher, Jerry Ellig, passed away on Wednesday night, the victim of a heart attack.

I first got to know Jerry as a regulatory economist par excellence. At the time, the early 1990s, Jerry was an economics professor at George Mason University (GMU) and associate director of the Center for the Study of Market Processes, the non-profit research organization at GMU later renamed the Mercatus Center. His principal research focus was on telecom regulation and on the general economics of the regulatory process. But he had wide-ranging interests, and he wrote, lectured, and taught on a broad range of regulatory topics. For a few years, he taught as an Adjunct Professor at GMU’s law school, where I took his class on the economics of regulation and rulemaking.

Jerry was no mere blackboard economist. He cared deeply about public policy and hoped to make government and the regulatory process work better and smarter. He spent time on Capitol Hill as a Senior Economist for the Joint Economic Committee, served as Deputy Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning, and, in what would prove to be the capstone of his career, served as Chief Economist for the Federal Communications Commission. In between, he held positions at a handful of free market non-profits, including Citizens for a Sound Economy and the aforementioned Mercatus Center. And, more recently, he was a Research Professor at George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center.

As an economist, a researcher, and a regulatory reform advocate, Jerry was unrivaled. When he tackled an issue—whether it was net neutrality, broadcast licensing, e-commerce, or broadband pricing on the one hand or the economics of interstate wine shipping, judicial review of regulatory impact analysis, the regulation of funerals and casket sales, or the economics of baseball’s “reserve clause” and free agency on the other—he was almost always the best informed and most thoughtful person weighing in. When Jerry spoke, he had to be taken seriously. And, perhaps more importantly, he approached his work with an incomparable level of care and professionalism that could only come from his genuine desire to do good.

At a time when both policy and politics are too often characterized by rancor, pretense, and posturing, Jerry was nothing if not humble and sincere. And one of his greatest skills was an ability to humanize public policy debates and discussions. He had a knack for explaining complex phenomena in simple and direct terms, and, perhaps more importantly, showing how this or that policy approach would affect real human beings.

Indeed, Jerry was not just a great economist, he was one of the kindest and most compassionate people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. He was friendly and considerate, and always willing to lend a hand or his expertise to someone eager to learn. I was a very young and inexperienced policy wonk when I first met him, and he would never tire of answering my questions. Above all, he seemed never to hold my youth or inexperience against me—never once treated me with anything but kindness and respect.

In short, Jerry was a mensch—a person of the utmost honor and integrity, and a genuinely nice human being. He took his work seriously. He took his care for others and his commitment to improving the government seriously. But he never took himself seriously. You’ll see, for example, in that photo atop this post that he’s wearing a Jimmy Buffett Parrothead tie while testifying before Congress. He also drove a beat up old compact car for years (surely at least three decades) when he could easily have afforded a fine new luxury import.

I did not share Jerry’s taste in music or his sartorial style (such as it was). But he and I did share an affinity for model trains and a love of the two finest National League teams of the 1970s. (He was a fan of the Big Red Machine, while I rooted for the 1971 and ‘79 World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.) I will miss my friend. But, worse, the world will miss his contributions to the realm of economics and regulatory analysis.