In Remembrance on Independence Day: William T. Wilson, Ph.D.

Economist once paid steep price for intellectual honesty

Dr. William Wilson, former senior policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, died last April of cardiac arrest, according to his official obituary. He was 54. Bill Wilson was a longtime friend to the Mackinac Center, a talented scholar and economist and recipient of the Mackinac Center’s Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor Award.

It seems only fitting that we wish an old colleague goodbye on Independence Day, that sublime day in U.S. history when this nation chose to set itself apart from England and declare itself free and independent.

Originally from York, Penn., Wilson attended Towson State University in Maryland before earning both a master’s degree and doctorate in international economics from Purdue University. Wilson eventually taught at Purdue as well as at Ohio Northern University and the University of Glasgow before joining Comerica Bank at its then corporate headquarters in Detroit. It is during his time at Comerica Bank that Mackinac Center employees befriended this good man and ultimately asked him for a favor that would change his life.

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Wilson was a regular at many Mackinac Center functions and provided assistance as needed for the “Ask the Economist” feature of our early web site. Ask the Economist was a module that allowed students of economics to ask broad questions of Center scholars. In addition, he published everything from short “Viewpoint” commentaries on subjects as varied as Social Security and the International Monetary Fund to Michigan Renaissance Zones to the Mackinac Center’s first study on the economic impact of adopting right-to-work laws.

It is in regard to this latter subject that the Mackinac Center turned to Wilson in 1999 when it needed a scholar to testify on the topic before a state committee in Lansing. Wilson agreed to testify. He told us the room was packed with an audience that was strenuously opposed to right-to-work. After his testimony, Wilson was informed that he would be let go from his job at Comerica. Apparently, unions that kept their money on deposit at his bank were organizing large withdrawals in response to Wilson’s testimony about the positive economic development aspects of right-to-work laws.

Wilson’s termination led him to find new work in Chicago as chief economist for the business consultancy Ernst and Young. Eventually, his work would lead him to live in Kuwait, China and Moscow. It was this latter home from which he traveled in early 2013 when the Mackinac Center hosted a small party in Lansing to celebrate the adoption of Michigan’s right-to-work law the year before, 14 years after Wilson had testified in support of the idea.

We asked Wilson to say a few words to our audience at this event and on his way to the podium he noticed a Comerica Bank branch across the street. This prompted him to recount for our guests the story of his firing from Comerica. Pausing for effect he concluded by saying he was here in Lansing, “From Russia, with love.” The audience, including the authors, roared with laughter and approval.

Wilson’s contribution to the right-to-work debate, and ultimately the adoption of the law, should never be lost to history. Recognizing the special role played by him, the Mackinac Center gave him its prestigious Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor Award, and a plaque denoting as much hangs in the Mackinac Center’s Midland headquarters. It reads:

Dr. William T. Wilson has earned the Lives, Fortunes and Sacred Honor award for his courageous defense of free labor markets in testimony before the Michigan Legislature and in the press.

His principled analysis incurred the wrath of organized labor and ultimately cost him a job, even though his calls for an end to compulsory unionism find support among legions of Michigan workers.

David Littmann, his former Comerica Bank colleague, described Bill as “a principled, top-notch economist scholar and friend” and we couldn’t agree more.

The world lost a talented economist and good man last April in William T. Wilson. His legacy will live on in his published research, interviews, testimony and in his comments that ultimately helped see a right-to-work law adopted in Michigan.

People in the Great Lake State are a little freer this Independence Day because of Bill Wilson’s contributions. The staff feel privileged to have known him.

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