A Visit with Hal Varian
The esteemed economist and writer shows us around his Danville retreat
Hal Varian is trying to remember home improvement projects he has done in his new house. “There is something. … I know there is,” he mutters. We have been talking about his workshop, with its array of fine tools, but his wife, Carol, expresses doubt that any of them have been used.
Varian admits she probably has a point: “The workshop has great potential, but there are also delusions of grandeur,” he says. Then his face lights up, and he leads me to the laundry room, where he points to a small metal bracket on the wall used for drying clothes. “I put this up. You’d be amazed how many tools you need to do a job like that,” he says jokingly.
Varian is a professor of business, economics, and information management at UC Berkeley and the author, with Carl Shapiro, of the highly regarded Information Rules. He hardly needs public acclaim for his handyman work. One of the country’s most respected economists, he is also a New York Times columnist, and he has been a key advisor to Google since 2002. Nevertheless, the easygoing, affable Varian seems puzzled that his manual dexterity doesn’t match his cerebral gifts. “I grew up on a farm in Ohio. My father did everything. I assumed it went along with the Y chromosome,” he says.
The 1939 ranch-style home that he and Carol moved into in July 2006 is perched high in the hills of west Danville. The giant picture window in the elegant living room offers unobstructed views down the San Ramon Valley, past Walnut Creek, and as far as the hills of Napa Valley. The well-established neighborhood has a history: Eugene O’Neill wrote some of his finest plays while living in the nearby Tao House from 1937 to 1944.
The Varians’ house, set on four acres and surrounded by forest, appealed to the couple because they were looking for a home on one level after living for a decade in a three-story house in Lafayette. They also wanted a garden. Carol is a keen gardener, as well as an accomplished botanical artist.
Varian gives me a guided tour of the recently installed solar panels on the roof of the garage and a new deck with a hot tub. He says he is partial to hot tubs and also expresses boyish excitement when showing me the steam shower in the master bathroom. But he says he is probably less attached to homes than his wife is. “It’s always nice to come back to, and I’ve enjoyed places I have lived in, but home is not as important to me as it is to Carol.”
Although he says commuting is not arduous, Varian is thinking of buying a pied-à-terre in the South Bay because he makes regular trips to Google. One senses that he also likes the idea of having an urban counterpoint to his more pastoral retreat in Danville.
His bookshelf-lined study has a window looking out on the home’s swimming pool, with its dramatic rock waterfall, but the blinds are drawn to keep out the glare. It is in the study that Varian writes his monthly column, titled Economic Scene, for the New York Times. The column manages to be both erudite and accessible.
He tells me he has just filed his latest installment, a look at the economics of leisure. “I vary what I write about,” he says. “It could be something sparked by current events or an analysis of international economics. Sometimes it’s an opinion piece—but I could never have enough opinions to do a weekly opinion piece!”