ECONOMIST WARNED OF INCOME INEQUALITY
Best-selling author made suggestions on how to fix the gap
Lester Thurow, an author, commentator and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who was an influential economist and an early and outspoken voice on such pressing public issues as the expanding inequality in incomes, died March 25 at his home in Westport, Mass. He was 77.
His death was announced by MIT. The cause could not immediately be determined.
Through best-selling books, in provocative articles and sharp speeches, and in interviews and television appearances, Thurow showed himself to be a scholar with a wish to be heard by a broad public and a gift for explaining complex topics in clear language.
Over the years, he had been a dean at MIT, advised presidential candidates and made significant contributions to the national debate on an array of economic issues.
He gained particular attention as the author of The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities for Change (1980). In that book, he argued that a more equitable sharing of economic burdens and benefits might give more to some and less to others, but need not preclude prosperity.
By propounding new economic ideas in the public arena and seeking the attention of a broad audience, he told an interviewer, he aimed “to make the world better.”
In the service of this goal, he expanded his horizons over time to move beyond income distribution to talk about the wider range of economic issues that affected American well-being.
Many of the matters he dealt with have resonated during the current presidential campaign. They include the ability of the United States to compete at a time of increasing globalization and the overall state of working America as jobs and capital flow abroad.
In his book The Future of Capitalism (1996), he was credited with diagnosing the economic anxieties and ailments that have gained increasing attention — including not only the income gap, but also sluggish growth and widespread joblessness.
To preserve the American standard of living, he proposed a variety of measures, including protection of American intellectual capital in an increasingly idea-based econo- my. Recognizing the economic importance of research, he advocated policies that fostered investment in ideas and products that might bring rewards.
Quick to grasp how overseas trade could depress blue-collar pay, he emphasized the need for education and re-education, training and retraining.
“Those with Third World skills will earn Third World wages,” he once told an audience.
“Anything can be made anywhere on the face of the Earth and sold everywhere else on the face of the Earth.”
A climber of mountains as an avocation, he was known for intellectual and physical daring. In his book Fortune Favors the Bold (2003), he offered prescriptions for a new and durable global economy. He wrote to make economics accessible to everyone: businessmen and government workers, scholars and citizens.
A review in The Washington Post indicated, however, that Thurow’s vision of the future was not unrealistically rosy.
“Thurow’s most valuable advice, in fact, is that ‘many of the globe’s economic problems, however, are dilemmas ... problems for which there are no acceptable solutions,’” wrote reviewer Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation.
In a statement, MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said Thurow “spent his life trying to make society more far-sighted and more fair.”
Although he had been a staff member of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisers and an adviser to prominent public figures, he never found a satisfactory position at Washington’s highest levels.
Certainly he had wished to. “He was hoping to be able to make policy,” said his wife Anna.
However, she said, a meeting between Thurow and U.S. president Jimmy Carter did not go well. She said her husband, in his forthright way, “told (Carter) what policies he didn’t like, and Carter didn’t like it.” No job was forthcoming. It was a source of regret and a turning point in his career, setting him on the path of exerting his influence from outside the corridors of power.
He was one of the five founders of the Economic Policy Institute, which distinguished itself for both setting and anticipating the American economic agenda.
Many institute positions were also Thurow’s. Steven Pearlstein wrote in The Post that the institute was “worrying about rising income inequality” when many economists “were still claiming it was all just a statistical mismeasurement.”
Quick to spot the significance of the Chinese economy, Thurow helped set up programs in China for MIT.
Lester Carl Thurow was born May 7, 1938, in Livingston, Mont., where his father was a Methodist minister and his mother a teacher.
He received a bachelor’s degree in political economy from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., then won a Rhodes Scholarship and received a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford’s Balliol College.
His doctorate in economics came in 1964 from Harvard University, where he taught before moving in 1968 to MIT, where he spent almost his entire career in the economics department and at the Sloan School of Management. He was Sloan’s dean from 1987 to 1993.
His first wife, Emily Rooks, predeceased him. His second marriage, to Gretchen Pfuetze, ended in divorce.
He is survived by his wife of 18 years, the former Anna Soldinger, two sons, Torben Thurow and Ethan Thurow; two stepchildren, Yaron Karasik and Yael Shinar; a brother; and seven grandchildren.
Those with Third World skills will earn Third World wages.